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Inventing holiday traditions is just as fun as sticking to the standards

The day has, for me, always been cobbled together to celebrate my provisional families
Image: Family Observing Burnt Turkey On Dining Room Table
A turkey is nice, but sharing the holiday with the people you love is better.Michael Cogliantry / Getty Images

Nations, like families, invent traditions as way to tell ourselves stories about who we are and where we have been. But unlike the holiday I see on television and in the movies, Thanksgiving, for me, has always been an improvisation, a cobbled-together affair meant to celebrate provisional families and the ways we invent them.

When I was 18, I moved to college with my toddler daughter; since then, I’ve always been at least five hours and an $800 ticket away from the rest of my family. We went home to my parents’ house for Christmas, of course, where all of us spent hours browsing the antique mall and record stores, and my mother and I would stay up late drinking wine and reading books by the tree.

But Thanksgiving belonged to just us, and whomever happened to be around at the time. Our first year away at college, my best friend, Alice and I — we had gone to high school and then college together and later shared an apartment in San Francisco — bought a pair of Wahl clippers at a Black Friday sale, shaved our heads, and watched “Gone with the Wind” and “The Sound of Music” back to back.

Another year, my daughter and I spent it with my friend Alexis (who would later become the guy to counsel my daughter about her bad junior high boyfriend), making pernil and tostones and dancing to Michael Jackson videos. Then there was the year that another friend had minor heart surgery and couldn’t go to her parents house, so we smoked a turkey for her in the backyard and spent the weekend watching DVDs of virtually every film nominated for an Oscar that year.

This year will be the third Thanksgiving my boyfriend and I will celebrate in Berlin, Germany — a city neither one of us had visited before we moved here in 2015 — without my daughter, who is in college. Each holiday we have spent in Berlin has the same slapdash, thrown-together quality: Our first Thanksgiving, we made baked mac and cheese and Glühwein with our friend who had kindly allowed us to borrow her shower the week ours inexplicably went out; the next, we went out to dinner at an American restaurant, followed by cocktails at the Black Lodge, a Twin Peaks-themed bar that runs David Lynch movies on constant rotation.

Finding American provisions in Berlin is a cottage industry, which allows me to keep to the tradition of being non-traditional. Bloggers sleuth out every Fleischerei in Berlin known to be able to procure turkey with at least a week’s advance notice (“be sure to clarify the giblet situation beforehand,” warns one); another gives painstaking instructions on how, with an empty can of cannellini beans and a mere 12 hours of preparation, one can make homemade cranberry sauce appear as if it came from a can (“take care you don’t slice all the can ridges off the jelly,” she writes, “they are part of the joy.”). KaDaWe, the fancy food store immortalized in this David Bowie song, is rumored to be among the only places to go for pumpkin pie filling.

Image: Friends Gathering at Dinner Table
Here's to the Thanksgiving you make yourself.Konstantin Pelikh / Alamy Stock Photo

Should one prefer to leave the foraging to others, for the past ten years, the American Church in Schoneberg has offered a Thanksgiving dinner followed by live opera, gospel and contemporary Christian music; and at least a half-dozen restaurants around Berlin provide American-style feasts (including the Hard Rock Cafe Berlin and Belushi’s, where one can have turkey with a side of NFL and American beers).

But none of this is much use to us: I’m a vegetarian, with no nostalgia for canned goods, and my love of football begins and ends with “Friday Night Lights” (which, admittedly, is our late night antidote for nostalgia about a multiracial American community where the adults actually care about kids and all the feel-good arcs end with an unlikely, deserving teenager getting into college).

The best part of celebrating Thanksgiving in Germany is that Thanksgiving is not a German holiday: The basic principle of German holidays is that Germans actually believe that every German deserves to celebrate them — your dentist, your pharmacist, your bookseller and yes, your grocer. Throughout the year, German labor laws dictate that service employees deserve a break from serving you; 24-hour supermarkets do not exist; and on Sundays and holidays, your only options are the train station or the local Späti (literally “late nighter”), the German equivalent of a bodega or corner store where one’s purchasing options are limited to beer, cigarettes, Haribo and Erdnusse Flips.

In principle, it’s admirably democratic: It’s refreshing to know there’s utterly no chance your local Best Buy employee will have to show up to work at midnight to sell you a discounted TV, nor that any of your neighbors will trample one another in an effort to score one.

So, spending Thanksgiving abroad, without my daughter in a country that doesn't celebrate it does have its upsides: if I run out of something or break something, I don't have to wait until Friday to purchase it, nor brave the crowds when I do.

But there's something about being away for it: Perhaps no holiday is more American than this one, designed by a relatively newly-minted nation both to erase the past and to point to a possible future. Seeing our country from this distance, I have never wanted more to see the present as a snapshot, an immediate record of where we are now, and an invitation to fight to keep the people we love close, in hopes that we can all somehow, once again, form a family.

Amy Benfer is a writer and editor living in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in, The Guardian, the Believer, Mother Jones, Elle, and Bandcamp.