I’ve never been a big fan of construction paper turkeys or pilgrim motifs. But I understand the urge to decorate for holidays and special occasions. When I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut, every day was like a Norman Rockwell illustration. Thanksgiving was always the time to rake leaves from the giant maple in the front yard. We’d put the whole family to work piling leaves on a giant tarp and drag it off to the leaf pile at the edge of the woods. When the pile got big enough, my husband would toss the kids into the pile again and again, until he got too tired to lift his arms (the kids were never tired). In those days, it made sense to decorate with gourds, pressed leaves, and branch bouquets. My kids and I made cute little owls by gluing googly eyes and felt wings onto pinecones. We hung them from the chandelier. We had a “nature table” on one shelf of our corner hutch where we composed our latest nature walk finds of feathers, rocks, bones, seedpods, snake skins, etc…
Then we moved to Hawaii, and all my previous conceptions of Autumn, Halloween, and Thanksgiving were turned upside down. There were no maple trees, but plenty of plumeria, palms, and banana trees. Gourds, pumpkins and pilgrim centerpieces were shipped in from the mainland so we could all pretend to be in New England. But it was very weird. We could go to the beach in the morning, come home and eat the traditional turkey dinner, then the kids would run out barefoot to play with the neighborhood kids. I know it sounds like paradise – and it was – but I missed the familiar sights and smells of New England. I missed our family and friends. But after a year had gone by, we made more friends, and gradually Thanksgiving became something different.
People in Hawaii know all about feasting with family and friends – they do it every weekend! Just drive to any beach and you will see a makeshift family compound of tents, tarps, picnic tables, coolers, portable grills, and surfboards. The elders will be sitting in the shade “talking story;” the dads will all be grilling teriyaki burgers with beer in hand; the moms will scold children and laugh with each other while shooing flies off the picnic tables; and the children all play in the waves until they get hungry or thirsty enough to come in. Hawaiians don’t just have a typical family day at the beach. They have F-A-M-I-L-Y days at the beach, which means everyone in their entire extended family and a dozen friends as well. This is what the Hawaiians call ohana. It really is heartwarming, in the same way that those Norman Rockwell paintings of Thanksgiving are heartwarming.
Even though we never had relatives visit us at Thanksgiving, we started gathering with our friends every year. And every year our circle of friends seemed to grow bigger and bigger. Our last Thanksgiving in Hawaii was spent at our friends’ little house near Kailua Beach Park. Everyone went either kite surfing or jogging in the morning, then we rinsed the sand off and started cooking together. Later, more friends showed up with food and wine to share. We “talked story” and laughed, and went around the long table saying something we were each thankful for. It was wonderful. Can you tell I miss them?
The idea of designating an official day of Thanksgiving may have sprung from our colonial pilgrim history, but it’s really a tradition that spans all cultures. The idea of feasting with friends and family, and remembering our blessings, can be celebrated any number of ways. Turkeys and pilgrims are not necessary. For me, in Hawaii, setting out my placemats with little squirrels and acorns seemed ridiculous. Instead I grew to appreciate the special decor that island dwellers know best: a pile of “slippers” outside the front door from all the ohana within.