Why I Did Not Celebrate Halloween (and Will Not Celebrate Thanksgiving)

The zucche are back in season – round squash with bright melon-like flesh and ivory-colored bulletproof rinds. I see heaps of them in a plastic milk crate at the market and think about it for a heartbeat, but then remember the toughness of that rind, my desperate awkwardness with knives and, above all, the fact that whether I carve a squash or not, no one will give a crap except for myself.

I see the ads on Facebook. This nightspot or that nightspot promotes a “Halloween” party that will – as I know by now – be, at most, half-full with people dressed as zombies or black cats, who haven’t the slightest idea what the holiday is about, and if the rains are too heavy, if Paolo suggests seeing a movie instead, if mamma makes a really heavy dinner, those people will bail on that ‘Allo-win party because in the end, the day means nothing, it’s just something stolen from American TV, just another excuse to drink, and no one will give a crap about it except for myself.

It’s different when you are part of a foreigner community. A holiday means nothing unless you have someone to celebrate it with, someone who understands why on Earth you’re dressing up or setting off firecrackers in the first place. Someone who has also traced their hands with a crayon to make a construction paper turkey, someone who was also forced to play a pilgrim in the 4th grade Thanksgiving assembly when they’d rather have been a pumpkin, someone who also remembers when it was okay to call Native Americans “Indians.” As far as I know, I’m the only one of my kind in Terracina. I heard tell of another like me, a year ago, but I’ve never seen him, and I have no idea if he still exists, but Katarina said his Italian was better than mine, so it’s just as well I never met him, because if I’d caught his scent, if I’d seen the flashing lights of his eyes, I’d have clawed out his tongue and pissed on his leg.

The saddest thing in the world… a gaping hole where candy should be

My mother asks me, Will you be having a Thanksgiving dinner this year? And I think of the years I hunted turkey and cranberry sauce in Japan, only to come home from Supa Tamade with chicken cutlets and dried berries. I think about how I learned how to make my own chicken broth, my own stuffing, and my own French Fried onions from scratch when I couldn’t find Swanson, Stove Top, or Durkee’s. How hard I worked to create a Thanksgiving dinner in a Japanese kitchen with two burners and no oven. There was Bob then – at least he was American and happy to see stuffing before him. I think about the year in Ireland, too, when I hunted turkey in Dunnes only to be disappointed as I was too early for the Christmas rush and had to make do, again, with a roast chicken. Sean invited his friend Eoin to dinner, and the two of them looked at me cross-eyed when I apologized for having made everything from scratch. Stop apologizing, will ya? said Sean. It’s fine, it’s grand, whatever, I’m hungry, let’s eat.

Turkey for one

The first year in Italy, when I begged for a giant turkey from the butcher and threw my back out carrying it to the dinner table. What’s this? I’m not sure if I want to try it. What are we celebrating, anyway? What are we supposed to do now? I’ll try just a little bit of that stuff over there, just to see what it’s like. I’ll be brave. I’ll sacrifice myself.

But my mother is waiting for an answer. My mother wants to know if I’m going to cook for two days only to have my Italian friends show up in staggered shifts between 10 pm and midnight and eat half of what I made.

No, I tell her. It’s not worth it.

That’s too bad, she says. I’m sorry.

Me, too, I say.

Because, of course, no matter what I cook, no matter how passionately I explain the First Thanksgiving, no matter if I politely explain that when one is invited to dinner one must arrive on time, in the end no one will really give a crap about it but myself.

My mother is generally a cheerleader for sticking to things one is passionate about, but she has said so little about my decision that I like to think she understands better than anyone else. I was born five years after my parents emigrated to the United States. We spoke Italian in the home, celebrated La Vigilia and got presents from La Befana. But we never celebrated La Quema del Diablo. We never celebrated Ferragosto or any of the many Italian holidays involving the countless apparitions of the Virgin Mary. My parents had each other and two other Italian immigrants in town to remind them of home; perhaps that’s why La Vigilia and La Befana lasted as long as they did. What about someone who is, in effect, alone in her own national skin? Is five years the standard life span of a cultural tradition in one-celled organisms? Only a year ago, I vowed to celebrate Thanksgiving wherever I was, turkey or no. But after nearly six years of forcing my cultural values on people who literally do not give a crap, I’ve come to realize that it’s not about the turkey, the cranberries, the firecrackers, the watermelon, or the zombie costumes. It’s about being with people who don’t think of the traditional dinner you slaved over as strange ethnic food that has to be “braved,” the decorations you crafted as cute throwaway props, and your time-honored ritual as just another day on the calendar.

It is 23:35 on 31 October and I am watching yet another episode of Toddlers & Tiaras on YouTube when there is a strange crashing noise. The moon is bright enough that I don’t need to turn on my lights as I pad through the apartment, drawn strangely to the balcony in my living room, where the curtains billow upwards like panicky ghosts. I see it soon enough: my tipped-over drying rack. I open the balcony doors and step outside, yanking the plastic rack upright again. It has stopped raining, but the wind is so fierce, the waves crash against the beach so angrily, that from indoors the world would still seem to be wet.

The Halloween moon is a nearly perfect silver orb. I smell the Tyrrhenian Sea, briny and devastating.

7 Replies to “Why I Did Not Celebrate Halloween (and Will Not Celebrate Thanksgiving)”

  1. This makes me sad. Sometimes I think I have it pretty bad (my immediate family is estranged and my husband’s family hate turkey and have no idea why I make such a big deal out of reciting what I am thankful for, or why I HAVE to have chili on Halloween, even though they are Americans born and bred) and then I read a post like this and I become more melancholy. I’m finding the tradition isn’t worth it without the emotion, and the emotions (especially on such holidays as Halloween and Thanksgiving) are so much more important than the trappings surrounding it.
    ♥ I hope you have as much holiday as you desire, and that there isn’t a gaping hole where they once lived 🙂

  2. This completely broke my heart. I remember agonizing over makeshift utensils and a teeny toaster oven making thanksgiving dinner for 5, and I know how awful it is when no one else cares.

  3. I feel the same about Thanksgiving – I have celebrated it on and off the past years, and one of my hard & fast rules is: there needs to be at least 50% Americans present for me to cook a big dinner. I’ve had lots of requests and lots of “they would love it!” from Italian friends, but it’s not a single person cooking a big meal for everyone else, it’s a collective effort! They are fascinated by the tradition and what they’ve seen in the movies, and want the big meal and turkey, but don’t really know that they are missing a lot of the sentiment behind it and it’s very hard to teach.

    I’m not sure if I’ll be doing T-day this year but if I do, you are more than welcome to come up to Milan and participate, whether that’s bringing green bean casserole or tracing your hand on construction paper, cutting them out, and decorating the windows with those brown and red turkeys.

  4. This is really sad! On Halloween my office was hosting a big focus group with Kyrgyz village councilmen and a lot of local employees, and they all kept congratulating my husband and me on our country’s holiday and it just felt so strange. Then I went to a dinner that night with some American, French, Bulgarian, Russian and Kyrgyz people. One Russian woman gave a very nice toast about how happy she was to be able to celebrate Halloween with us. It was all just a bit ridiculous though, and we explained that essentially, it’s not something that’s celebrated with a nice dinner party and congratulations, it’s fun and silly and campy and probably completely ridiculous to non-Americans. This year, I’m in the states for Thanksgiving and yeah, while it can be fun to put in the wild efforts to recreate an American thanksgiving meal abroad (Bishkek actually has a fairly decent number of Americans and other expats, so it’s a good mix of people who get it and people who don’t), I’m so so looking forward to how easy it’s going to be this year. Nobody questioning the purpose of stuffing, no anxiety trying to find sweet potatoes, no rationing the one can of cranberry sauce that somebody’s parents sent them. Traditions are nice, but maybe it’s sometimes better to just go with the saying, “When in Rome…” and save the American holidays for America.

  5. I love this time of year, but when you put it that way…lol

    No, it is difficult to celebrate American holidays abroad and at this point I’m only doing it for the kids. If not for them, I probably wouldn’t even notice the day on the calendar.

  6. I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and found the articles very interesting, especially this one. Interesting view about Halloween and Thanksgiving.
    Please write more posts!

  7. The first few years of living abroad Thanksgiving and Halloween were also important to me. That’s not to say that 6 years in they’re no longer important to me, but like you, I realized that some things just can’t be “recreated” over here. And perhaps that used to bother me, but now I don’t mind anymore.

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