“Do they have Thanksgiving in Czech Republic?” asked me my son once about 15 years ago when we still lived in Santa Rosa, California, while making small, bigger and still bigger circles with his flashlight on the ceiling. He was in bed already in his pajamas, the ones with green, blue and yellow dinosaurs, and I was trying to make him turn off the flashlight and finally go to sleep.
“No, they don’t”, I answered. “Well”, he said, “how can they have any culture there if they have no Thanksgiving?”. I don’t remember what I answered, but I don’t think he quite accepted my explanation.
America indeed has different holidays. My favorite American tradition is Halloween. I remember that when I saw a band of Indians descending in colorful Indian costumes 30 years ago upon the Castro district in San Francisco against red sky on Halloween, I did not quite understand what it was about, but I thought that it was really cool.
A few years later I was carrying my infant son on my back walking with him and my wife the crazy streets of San Francisco on Halloween, full of little goblins and monsters threatening vengeance to grownups unless a ransom is paid in candy. After Castro Street, my favorite street to walk with my kid on my back on Halloween was Clement Street where most of the costumed children were Chinese.
In Prague, I only used to see candles flickering on graves in a cemetery that I used to pass on my frequent journey from men’s dormitory to women’s dormitory on Halloween, called Dušičky, which means “Little Souls” in Czech, because this is the day when people visit graves of their relatives in Central Europe, as well as in Mexico and other countries.
The best Halloween scene by far that we enjoyed with our kids for several years in Northern California was in a little town called Petaluma, about 45 minutes north of San Francisco. People dressed up as murderers, witches and monsters were sitting in front of small and big Victorian houses with dozens of pumpkins illuminated by candles on straight and crooked streets running up and down a hill, some drinking wine and liquor, some of them threatening for a change the children who were asking for candy. The grownups were probably having even more fun than the kids. I remember that I was blown away by one really scary witch who was uttering something that sounded like Shakespearean monologues with a fake but still pretty authentic Olde English accent. She was like totally out of this world!
My second favorite American holiday is Thanksgiving. Some of the strange Western traditions eventually spread to other countries from England and the United States and some were perverted during the process. For example the Japanese term 義理チョコ (giri choko) means “obligatory chocolate” that young women are obligated to give to their male coworkers on Valentine’s day in Japanese offices. I remember the contemptuous look on the face of my Japanese female office coworker who was explaining this peculiar Japanese tradition to me when I worked in an office in Tokyo.
But Thanksgiving is and probably will remain a uniquely American tradition. Because I had no family in America, in fact I did not know a single soul on the continent when I moved here, I was often invited to a Thanksgiving dinner by other people.
I had my first Thanksgiving dinner in 1982 with a Ukrainian-American family. During my second Thanksgiving in San Francisco, I was watching Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on TV while waiting for the turkey to be finished with a Polish couple. Well, he was Polish and she was Polish-American. On my fifth Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco I was already married and I and my wife were invited by a student of mine to spend the evening with his family. I was teaching a Japanese course at the Japan Town for a while and I met some interesting people there. The only sad Thanksgiving memory I have is when we decided to have the Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant in Santa Rosa called The Willie Bird which specializes in turkey meals. The restaurant was full of sad elderly people who were very quiet and looked kind of lonely. We were the only people there with children.
Once we had children, my wife had to learn how to cook the damn bird, or bake or roast it or whatever it is that you have to do with it. It must be all of the above because it takes half a day.
Given that she is a professional chef who can make perfect sushi, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki or just about anything else in just about any kind of cuisine you can think of, she struggled mightily before she finally got the hang of it. She is very proud of her accomplishment.
Since we moved to Virginia 10 years ago, we have been spending every Thanksgiving with our neighbors 2 houses down the street whose children are about the same age as our two boys. One year it is at their house, the next year it is at our house.
To me, having Thanksgiving is like having Christmas, which was my favorite holiday in the Old World, twice in a year.
But it is not true that have no culture in Europe because they don’t have Thanksgivings. It is (or maybe was) just different there. Every December about a week before Christmas, thousands of carps were swimming in huge wooden tubs on the main square of the medieval town where I grew up. Housewives would pick the right size of the carp and buy it and either ask to have the poor carp killed and gutted right there, or bring it home alive because father knew how to kill and clean a carp for the traditional Christmas soup and meal. My father was quite an expert in this particular field. I am pretty sure that he enjoyed the killing and gutting part. It is a man’s job because it is such a manly thing to do.
There were no trips to shopping malls and crowded parking lots in my world around Christmas when I was a kid. The magic of the snowy scene of the square in the evening, a few days before Christmas, with the big, fat carps being admired by little kids has probably not changed in hundreds of years. I kind of miss that. In California, they never even have any snow on Christmas, and here in Virginia, we had snow on Christmas about two or three times in the last 10 years.
How can you have any culture in California when you have no snow on Christmas?