On Thanksgiving morning, we woke up early and drove three hours north to my sister’s outside of Philadelphia. As we crossed over the Potomac River, I started humming the notes to Over the River and Through the Wood*. I watched the Jefferson Monument (my personal favorite), the Washington Monument, and US Capitol pass by through the morning haze on I-95 North – it seemed poetic due to the folklore surrounding the events of the First Thanksgiving and the events that eventually led to the creation of our relatively young nation.
There were fourteen of us present for Thanksgiving dinner in Pennsylvania this year. In addition to my parents and my brother-in-law’s extended family, my niece and nephew’s au pair, L., joined us for the festivities. She is from Germany so this was her first introduction to a true American Thanksgiving. As she sampled stuffing, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, and cranberry sauce, we tried our best to explain the origins of the holiday – our resident history major, Clay, even provided L. with a primer on Jamestown and Roanoke. We talked about the Mayflower and the discrepancy surrounding the actual Plymouth Rock. And as a group, we conceded that the stories surrounding the First Thanksgiving (as we were taught in elementary school) were likely very different than what really happened between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.
When it came time for dessert, not only were there the traditional and comfortable offerings of apple pie and pumpkin pie but also displayed was the most gorgeous schwarzwälder kirschtorte, made with love by L. the day before. Even more impressive – it was her first time making the cake, which is a holiday staple for her family back in Germany. Schwarzwälder kirschtorte (also known as Black Forest torte/cake) is a chocolate sponge cake with layers of whipped cream and cherries. L. spent hours acquiring the necessary ingredients, talking over the recipe with her mom on the phone, and baking and decorating the cake. She painstakingly executed a difficult recipe for the love of sharing a piece of her home with us on a holiday that is foreign to her. And yes – it was as delicious as it looked!
Later on Thanksgiving night, L. left the house to embark on her first Black Friday shopping experience with friends. Clay and I had no desire to go out that evening nor the following day. That’s not to say that we didn’t participate – quite the opposite, actually. Soon after we arrived at my sister’s, we took advantage of some online sales and ordered a handful of big-ticket items on our phones in between bites of appetizers and sips of cocktails. A couple of purchases were planned and a few were not. In fact, two of the impulse purchases were made with our children in mind. They weren’t on their Christmas list (or even our radar as potential gifts) but because the electronic devices were such a great deal, we justified clicking the buy now button. Because nothing exemplifies gratitude and giving thanks like mass consumerism.
But as the day wore on, I felt uneasy. The more I thought about it, the gifts seemed too extravagant and unnecessary. When we went outside to witness the turkey being dropped into a pot of boiling oil (another first for L.!), I pulled Clay aside and told him my concerns. And because he’s the butter to my bread, he admitted that he was feeling the same way and that he was also conflicted about spoiling our children. In hushed voices, we agreed that we weren’t comfortable giving such expensive gifts to them and vowed to return the baubles once we received them in the mail**.
Later, as we were eating the schwarzwälder kirschtorte, L. shared more about her family and how her life in Germany is different than what she has been experiencing thus far in the United States. She told us how her family of eight shares one bathroom and how their house only has one small television – not that it matters because they mainly use their living room for conservation and games. Clay and I shared a look of understanding and I knew we made the right choice. Despite us purposely living a life with less stuff and working hard to ensure that our children aren’t spoiled brats, we still found ourselves caught up in the Black Friday frenzy because it was so easy. For that reason, I am thankful that L. and her homemade schwarzwälder kirschtorte brought us back to our senses and reminded us what Thanksgiving is all about.
*As I am wont to do as a car passenger, I consulted my Wikipedia app to learn about more about the origins of the song, which actually began as a poem. I read all about Lydia Maria Francis Child, who was a novelist, an outspoken abolitionist, and bad-ass women’s rights activist.
**W. and V. – if you are reading this years from now and become upset at the realization that you almost received iPads for Christmas this year, please know that our love for you is not measured by the tangible gifts we give you. And books are more fun, anyway.