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!

Things Big and Small I Am Grateful For

Thanksgiving this year will be a quiet affair. Because of the pandemic, it will be just the two of us. It was tempting to cancel the festivities all together and to go without giving thanks for anything this terrible year, but that’s exactly why we need to be especially thoughtful on Thanksgiving Day, 2020.

I’m grateful for American democratic institutions, for family and friends that practice good pandemic safety, for neighbors I didn’t know before lockdown. For a daughter that cares enough to call so that we can go around the virtual table to say that for which we are thankful. And it’s not always the big stuff.

The things we most often ignore or overlook are the little things and the ignored people who sustain and protect and enrich our lives.

Rabbi Marc Gellman, The God Squad

Animal Rescue Volunteers

Many of you have rescue animals as pets curled up near your Thanksgiving tables and we ought to take time before we eat to thank God for the chain of love and fate that brought them into your home, awaiting any scraps that fall from your table.

Rabbi Marc Gellman, The God Squad
Kumba’s at home now

One month before the pandemic shut out the world, we adopted a rescue Lab, Kumba from the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida. We thank the chain of humans that found him at a shelter in Puerto Rico, flew him to Florida, and nursed him back to health when he arrived, rail thin and severely anemic. The other chain of humans accepted our application, and visited us in our home to evaluate what kind of dog would suit us best. Through fate, we were the first applicants to meet Kumba. When his road and ours intersected, magic happened.

Hospital Caregivers

Another chain of humans saved my life in Amsterdam last year. The ER staff at OLVG Hospital who clamped an arterial hemorrhage, the ICU staff who kept me alive, the Turkish family who carried my husband through his darkest days, physiotherapist who was sure I’d walk out of there when I could barely flex a foot — they all saw a person, not a patient, and they helped that person come back to life. All of those men and women have been doing that for.others since I flew home. They have survived one wave of COVID and are now on yet another, pulling long, stressful hours in a city shut down by the virus. Our hearts are with them all as we head into the darkest days of the year.

year-round christmas lights

I used to be a Christmas snob, but no more. Living in the Florida tropics, we enjoy our outdoor porch year-round — it’s where I do most of my writing, in fact. Lighting up the night seems just right, especially this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!