How American Diplomats Celebrate Thanksgiving

For the first time, my husband and I did not have turkey for our Thanksgiving meal, choosing instead butter-soft filet mignon for our dinner-for-two this year. However, tradition is much on my mind.

As US embassies, foreign service families, and ex-pats of all kinds celebrate America’s national holiday abroad, the events of the day are inevitably influenced by the overseas environment. Here are some Thanksgiving insider stories drawn from my own experience and from the extensive oral history collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).

The tastes of home

When you’re far from home, it can be the small private traditions that matter. For example, the 1960 Thanksgiving for the international student body at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies(SAIS) in Bologna almost didn’t happen because celery — the essential ingredient in my mother’s turkey stuffing — could not be found locally, and it took an all-day trip to two American military bases to save the day.

The eight-hour, 400-mile shopping trip resulted in a splendid Thanksgiving dinner that was a hit among the students and faculty who gathered at the Bologna Center on Friday, November 25, although the canned cranberry jelly got more attention than the celery dressing. 

Jane Kelly Amerson López, EMBASSY KID (publication pending)

International understanding

Sometimes, as ADST’s files reveal, Thanksgiving creates an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and understanding.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy to Vatican City in the late 1980s, drew on turkey, stuffing, and 100 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon to negotiate a ceasefire between rival parties in Mozambique’s bitter civil war.

They had big headaches the next day, but they signed a ceasefire and applauded Thanksgiving.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, ADST Interview

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, who was Consul General in Marseilles, France prior to becoming ambassador to Guinea, was faced with the challenge of fitting in multiple Thanksgiving dinners put on by clubs of Americans who’d stayed on after WWII. There were two clubs in Monaco, more in Nice and Cannes, and three in Marseilles.

Nobody knew how to make a pumpkin pie, but let me tell you there are more ways to service pumpkin than I ever imagined.

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, ADST Interview
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida

Conflicting events

And sometimes, history continues to be made despite the American holiday.

Arriving in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, the day before Thanksgiving, Theodore Boyd was quickly thrust in to Congo’s political upheaval.

When I got up on Thanksgiving Day and there was no one on the streets I said, “Oh, that’s okay because it’s a holiday.” Then it dawned on me subsequently that the Congolese didn’t observe Thanksgiving so I went over to the embassy and they said, “Come on in we need you, we’ve just had a coup.”  

Theodore A. Boyd, ADST Interview

However you celebrated, Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

Celebrating the Fourth in Caracas

CaracasWelcome
Arriving from Minneapolis, Minnesota, accompanied by his wife and his daughter Jane, Mr. Robert Amerson with the Embassy of the United States in Caracas as Information Officer. For these distinguished travelers, a cordial welcome.

At 2AM July 3, 1955, my parents and I, a 8 month-old, arrived at the seaside airport down the mountains from Caracas. It had been a marathon: driving up to NYC from DC, where they’d had two months of orientation training, leaving the car at  loading docks, and taking our 10 pieces of luggage to the Pan Am Strato Cruiser for what turned out to be a 12 hour flight. Despite her exhaustion, Mom sat down to write to her parents, a habit that would continue for Dad’s entire Foreign Service career.

Hotel Potomac, Caracas, July 3, 1955  Dear Mother and Dad:  All day today we’ve been just congratulating ourselves on having arrived, after so many weeks of planning and working toward that end…. 

A day later, on Venezuelan Independence Day, she set down in another letter about how the American Independence Day seemed to be done in Caracas. She was an outsider, sharing her observations with perhaps more enthusiasm than she could yet feel.

Caracas, July 5, 1955  Dear Mother and Dad:  Yesterday was the Ambassador’s reception to celebrate the 4th. Bob went and had a good chance to meet many of the local Venezuelan press and radio people. The other Embassy people were very nice, including a young fellow named Al Hanson [see note] who is a trainee for this type of work. The big formal dance was last night, but we passed it up; baby sitting problem most of all but we didn’t mind just being alone. From what we hear of the amount of work to be done, it is good that Bob has this period without worries. We know we’re going to enjoy this stuff very much….

images-2
source: arquitecturayempresas.es

By the following year, our live-in maid Josefina had become a part of our home, in large part to care for me when Mom had Foreign Service Wife duties during the day and social networking duties in the evening with Dad.  She was in her first trimester of pregnancy with my sister, but the stomach muscles she’d honed while teaching and performing modern dance must have kept her waist small enough to still fit into a maid of honor dress from Minnesota.

Caracas, July 2, 1956.  Dear Mother and Dad: Did I tell you we are going to the 4th of July dance? Great fancy doings and at last I’m breaking out the raspberry red dress from Mary’s [Caldwell Mudge] wedding.”  

images-1
source: Twitter.com

A year later, Mom was no longer the newest arrival among the Foreign Service wives, and her perspective on the events at the Ambassador’s Residence reflected her understanding of the job.

Caracas, July 1957  Dear Mother and Dad:  The reception was a big success. Mrs. McIntosh had a huge tent covering the inner garden at the Residence with good protection from both the sun and rain. We went up at 9:00 to get ready with things like arranging the receiving flowers. So many of the government bigwigs send gorgeous flower pieces and it is a job listing them (for thank yous) and then finding the proper place in the house. That in itself is an art, as the most important people must have their flowers displayed in the most important spots …Then there was constant work on sandwiches. We had each made 100 small, closed ones and they had to be arranged on the trays for passing, and later in the day they were cut in half to make enough to go around…

images-4
source: slideserve.com

By our last summer in Caracas, the event had mushroomed, and Mom was an experienced participant.

Caracas  July 2, 1958  Dear Mother and Dad:  Well, the 4th of July is nearly upon us and that means preparations for the big Embassy reception. This year our part has been to help make 2,200 sandwiches; the new Ambassador’s wife has been considerate of our pocket books and furnished the fixings. This thing is really done on a big scale, you know. There are some 8,000 North Americans though only about 1,500 show up as it is held over the noon hour; hate to think how many would come if it were at night…

images-3
source: youtube.com

Mom was in the last generation of Foreign Service wives who assumed they’d be unpaid helpmates to their husbands. I think connecting the women to each other in this type of assignment built a community among them. Mom recalled that no one had a telephone so planning and carrying out what was asked of them meant spending time in each other’s homes. By the time we left, both Mom and Dad felt the Embassy group was as close as family. They genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and there was a special connection that continued for the rest of their lives.

IMG_7166

 The “young fellow named Al Hanson” that Dad met at the Ambassador’s residence on July 4, 1955 was Allen C. Hansen, another USIA recruit who’d been in Caracas about a year. He became a close friend, as did the whole group at the Embassy, and the connection continued for decades.  Al’s 1988 interview with Dad about his career in USIA is a treasure of information and insight. It, along with hundreds of other interviews with American diplomats, is on the remarkable oral history pages of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Al and I were in touch as I plumbed Dad’s interview and others in the ADST collection. He was the author of five books, including Nine Lives: A Foreign Service Odyssey, published by ADST in its memoir series. In it, I learned that Mom and Dad had been witnesses to Al’s marriage to Charmaine.

Allen Hansen died in 2018.

Celebrating the American Fourth in Caracas

 

CaracasWelcome

The caption in this Venezuelan newspaper photo reads: Mr. Robert Amerson, from Minneapolis Minnesota, arrived with his wife and his daughter Jane to serve in the United States Embassy as Information Officer. To these distinguished travelers we extend our cordial welcome.

At 2AM July 3, 1955, my parents and I, a 8 month-old, arrived at the seaside airport down the mountains from Caracas. It had been a marathon: driving up to NYC from DC, where they’d had two months of orientation training, leaving the car at  loading docks, and taking our 10 pieces of luggage to the Pan Am Strato Cruiser for what turned out to be a 12 hour flight. Despite her exhaustion, Mom sat down to write to her parents, a habit that would continue for Dad’s entire Foreign Service career.

Hotel Potomac, Caracas, July 3, 1955  Dear Mother and Dad:  All day today we’ve been just congratulating ourselves on having arrived, after so many weeks of planning and working toward that end…. 

A day later, on Venezuelan Independence Day, she set down in another letter about how the American Independence Day seemed to be done in Caracas. She was an outsider, sharing her observations with perhaps more enthusiasm than she could yet feel.

Caracas, July 5, 1955  Dear Mother and Dad:  Yesterday was the Ambassador’s reception to celebrate the 4th. Bob went and had a good chance to meet many of the local Venezuelan press and radio people. The other Embassy people were very nice, including a young fellow named Al Hanson [see note] who is a trainee for this type of work. The big formal dance was last night, but we passed it up; baby sitting problem most of all but we didn’t mind just being alone. From what we hear of the amount of work to be done, it is good that Bob has this period without worries. We know we’re going to enjoy this stuff very much….

images-2

source: arquitecturayempresas.es

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the following year, our live-in maid Josefina had become a part of our home, in large part to care for me when Mom had Foreign Service Wife duties during the day and social networking duties in the evening with Dad.  She was in her first trimester of pregnancy with my sister, but the stomach muscles she’d honed while teaching and performing modern dance must have kept her waist small enough to still fit into a maid of honor dress from Minnesota.

Caracas, July 2, 1956.  Dear Mother and Dad: Did I tell you we are going to the 4th of July dance? Great fancy doings and at last I’m breaking out the raspberry red dress from Mary’s [Caldwell Mudge] wedding.”  

images-1

source: Twitter.com

A year later, Mom was no longer the newest arrival among the Foreign Service wives, and her perspective on the events at the Ambassador’s Residence reflected her understanding of the job.

Caracas, July 1957  Dear Mother and Dad:  The reception was a big success. Mrs. McIntosh had a huge tent covering the inner garden at the Residence with good protection from both the sun and rain. We went up at 9:00 to get ready with things like arranging the receiving flowers. So many of the government bigwigs send gorgeous flower pieces and it is a job listing them (for thank yous) and then finding the proper place in the house. That in itself is an art, as the most important people must have their flowers displayed in the most important spots …Then there was constant work on sandwiches. We had each made 100 small, closed ones and they had to be arranged on the trays for passing, and later in the day they were cut in half to make enough to go around…

images-4

source: slideserve.com

By our last summer in Caracas, the event had mushroomed, and Mom was an experienced participant.

Caracas  July 2, 1958  Dear Mother and Dad:  Well, the 4th of July is nearly upon us and that means preparations for the big Embassy reception. This year our part has been to help make 2,200 sandwiches; the new Ambassador’s wife has been considerate of our pocket books and furnished the fixings. This thing is really done on a big scale, you know. There are some 8,000 North Americans though only about 1,500 show up as it is held over the noon hour; hate to think how many would come if it were at night…

images-3

source: youtube.com

Mom was in the last generation of Foreign Service wives who assumed they’d be unpaid helpmates to their husbands. I think connecting the women to each other in this type of assignment built a community among them. Mom recalled that no one had a telephone so planning and carrying out what was asked of them meant spending time in each other’s homes. By the time we left, both Mom and Dad felt the Embassy group was as close as family. They genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and there was a special connection that continued for the rest of their lives.

IMG_7166 The “young fellow named Al Hanson” that Dad met at the Ambassador’s residence on July 4, 1955 was Allen C. Hansen, another USIA recruit who’d been in Caracas about a year. He became a close friend, as did the whole group at the Embassy, and the connection continued for decades.  Al’s 1988 interview with Dad about his career in USIA is a treasure of information and insight. It, along with hundreds of other interviews with American diplomats, is on the remarkable oral history pages of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Al is the author of five books, including Nine Lives: A Foreign Service Odyssey which I have by my bedside table. In it, I learned that Mom and Dad had been witnesses to Al’s marriage to Charmaine. I spoke with Al just today, delighted that we’ve found a way to keep the connection.