Creating Thanksgiving Traditions Abroad

On the last Monday of each month Lori at Write Mind Open Heart posts about a perfect moment she has had. She says, “it is about noticing a perfect moment rather than creating one.” I really love the idea of being mindful of perfect moments and dwelling on them when they happen so please see mine below. To read other perfect moments or to link up your own visit Lori’s post.

Creating Thanksgiving Traditions Abroad - Mud Hut Mama

This was the first year I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving since 2008 when I was in the States, just before moving back to Zambia. The following three years there were no other Americans around to celebrate with and since my husband doesn’t like turkey (I know he’s weird) and it hasn’t been easy to get a hold of where we’ve been there have been no big Thanksgiving dinners and really no marking of the holiday at all. My girls were too young to understand it, my husband pretends to be too grumpy to appreciate it, and it just seemed like too much work for the ungrateful audience I had available to me.

In fact, I think the only time that I have ever celebrated Thanksgiving outside of the States before this year was in 1998 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural Zambian community. I thought it would be a fun way to share my culture so I explained the meaning of the holiday and we had an enormous community feast. Everyone contributed something and while the menu was a far cry from the Thanksgiving meals of turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing that I had grown up with it was still a magnificent feast and the community effort to put it all together went a long way in helping me integrate into my new home.

Two other Peace Corps Volunteers that were living in the same general area also made a big effort to attend. They both cycled for over four hours to help me celebrate and it meant the world to me to have them there. They were the first visitors I had in my new home which was a small two room mud hut with a thatched roof. As luck would have it, that Thanksgiving night marked the start of the rainy season and boy did it start with a bang. The thunder and lightning woke the three of us up and was soon followed by buckets of torrential rain. It quickly became apparent that the thatch job on my roof had been done in haste and a poor thatch job means that the rain runs through the grass as easily as, well as easily as you would imagine rain would run through grass. We may as well have been sleeping outside. The bed was soaked, the sleeping bags were soaked, the three of us were soaked, and all of my worldly possessions were soaked. Had I been alone I would have surely spent the night in misery with buckets of tears adding to the buckets of rain pouring into my house, but I was not alone. I was with two people that I actually hadn’t spent a whole lot of time with before but the nature of our situation gave us so much common ground that they felt like old friends. They had both started a year before me so were more seasoned volunteers and, in the way so many Peace Corps Volunteers around the world do, they turned a disaster into a party.

I dug out a bright orange emergency tent that my Mom had bought for me and insisted I pack. I remember laughing at her saying, “I will have a house Mom, I’m going to live with a community not in the middle of the bush somewhere by myself.” Oh how wise my mother is! We strung up the tent, which was really just a large piece of plastic, over the poles that my mosquito net was hanging from and the three of us sat there on my bed watching water pour off the tent all around us. About every fifteen minutes we had to empty the large pockets of water that were forming on top of the tent between the poles. We were still soaked but at least now we were not getting any wetter and it was quite clear that there would be no sleep that night. We remembered that we had a bottle of home brewed honey wine left over from our Thanksgiving feast and so that came out and the three of us passed it around taking swigs from the bottle while being able to laugh at our situation. We started to feel the effects of the wine and decided that since Thanksgiving was over it wasn’t too early to pull out the Christmas carols. We found my walkman and attached the speakers (yes, I am that old) and put in a mixed tape of Christmas music that I’d made before I left the States. We got drunk, sang out of key, and laughed until it hurt while we waited for the storm to pass and the sun to rise. It was a wonderful Thanksgiving that, thanks to a flooded house, I will never forget. Later I brought a large piece of plastic from town to cover my roof and hopefully keep me dry through the rest of the rainy season. This is how it looked months later when the rain stopped and more grass could be harvested.

My First Mud Hut - Mud Hut Mama

I hadn’t planned to celebrate Thanksgiving this year but when I found out that a friend of mine that served in Peace Corps with me, and who is currently living in Zambia, would be joining us for Thanksgiving and bringing her son I couldn’t contain my excitement. I hadn’t seen them since we left Zambia to move to Malawi two and a half years ago and I was determined to make a Thanksgiving feast and start some Thanksgiving traditions that would be worthy of our childhood memories. We searched for a turkey but had no luck so we settled for chicken. Apart from that we had a pretty authentic meal. My friend was even able to get a hold of crunchy onions for the green bean casserole. We invited a couple of other friends who work at one of the lodges in the reserve and while it wasn’t the enormous gathering of extended family that I remember from my own childhood, we had a table full of people coming together to celebrate and to overeat.

It was my first time hosting a Thanksgiving and the food turned out beautifully – not only were there no catastrophes but my first attempt at making stuffing was a huge success. It was really special to share this American holiday with my family and my friends. I enjoyed sitting up late with my friend catching up and reminiscing while watching elephant, buffalo and hyena come to drink at the waterhole, and we saw a white bush buck on a game drive which is a very rare and special sighting but, as it always seems with holidays, it was not without stress. The leopard relocation that coincided with my friend’s visit kept my husband away from home for much of their stay and thwarted some of our plans, I missed being with my extended family and I found it challenging to keep all three kids entertained in our small space. The late nights coupled with early mornings and demanding littles have left me tired but my perfect moment was the realization that in amongst all of the imperfection we had more than our fair share of perfect moments.

A White Bush Buck - Mud Hut Mama

I realized that I don’t have to be in the States to celebrate holidays the “right way” and I don’t have to try to recreate my own childhood for my kids, we will create our own traditions and memories that will be just as magical for my girls as the ones my parents created were for me. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself around the holidays to make things perfect and while this Thanksgiving didn’t bring any disasters it was a gentle reminder that there is very little in life that is truly perfect and stressfree and that what is important is not necessarily avoiding the stress but learning to find perfect moments in the midst of it. I am sure there will be other holidays down the road that don’t go quite as smoothly as this one did. I will forget to defrost a turkey or burn the dessert, I will be disappointed because we won’t be able to be close to extended family or friends or because we decide not to celebrate at all and I hope that in those moments I will be able to rise above the initial disappointment and remember that Peace Corps ability to turn a disaster into a party. I can’t think of a better quality to pass down to my daughters then that.

This post has also been linked to Picklebum’s Real Life Wednesday.

About Jody Tilbury

29 Responses to “Creating Thanksgiving Traditions Abroad”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Jjiraffe says:

    I love this, and I agree with you that celebrating Thanksgiving abroad can be very memorable and special. Some of my best Thanksgivings were in London, where we would scramble to find the ingredients (and often fail) for the traditional dishes but there was a real spirit of adventure and meaning present during those holidays that I remember vividly.

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Yes – there is something really satisfying about recreating a dish when you have to substitute so many ingredients.

  2. Beth says:

    Jody’s not exaggerating about the food turning out beautifully! What a fitting post about your Thanksgiving experiences abroad. We loved our visit!

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      We miss you already! Was so wonderful to have you guys here – let’s do it again before next year!

  3. Love this!! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to you – I hope it was a wonderful day with your family!

  4. Gail says:

    What a wonderful story, and your littles will have such fabulous memories of their Holidays with you, just as you have of yours. It’s not where you spend the Holiday, but who you spend it with and the meaning of the day. Relax and enjoy.
    Love ya

  5. Heather says:

    Glad you enjoyed your holiday and had some special friends to share it with.

  6. So much perfection in this post! The tent your mom insisted on, the honey wine, the expat Thanksgiving (we did one like that while living in Syria — had to go to Lebanon to get many of the groceries), but especially, dropping the expectation of perfection 🙂

    Love the stories of Thanksgiving past and Thanksgiving present.

  7. Addison says:

    Jody, wow! Two great stories. How fun that first Thanksgiving in the rain must have been. It sounds like a magical time. I’m glad that you were able to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends this year, too. Chicken for Turkey isn’t too big of a trade. It sounds like a lot of fun.

    And hey, I made the stuffing this year too – I think it’s the first time I’ve done it without my wife’s help. Feels good to accomplish something new 🙂

  8. Frances says:

    What a beautiful post about a very special and different Thanksgiving! It’s true what you said that you will need to create our own traditions and memories. Jody, it doesn’t matter if they are different from the memories you had when growing up, because your children will know no different! They will only remember the special memories and traditions you have created for them. I really loved this post! Thanks for sharing!

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you Frances – you are so right – they won’t know any different – it’s just me that has to let go of the idea that I have to recreate for them what was special to me.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I love your Peace Corps stories!
    My favorite thanksgiving abroad story is from your neck of the woods – we were in South Africa with a student group from the US, who wanted to celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving meal. The frozen turkey the found at the Pick ‘n’ Pay was frozen and packaged in a town 15 minutes from their university in the US! Small world (thanks to globalization, eh?)

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      That is too funny! I can’t believe Pick ‘n’ Pay imported a turkey from the States – and so crazy that it was from so close to their university. Small world indeed!

  10. What a terrific post! Yes, it is so easy to put pressure on ourselves with holidays, but as you say, these memories will be just as sweet for your girls as your childhood ones are for you. I am sure there were plenty of disasters around holidays when I was a kid, but I don’t remember any of them!

    When I was volunteering in Bolivia, some other Americans and I talked about trying to do a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but it was just too hard to find all the ingredients for our favorite dishes (especially the turkey!), so we lost our enthusiasm. I remember calling home on a crackly phone line, talking to my family at their big gathering, while I sat on a friend’s couch in the sweltering heat and tried to imagine them all bundled up in the cold. It is hard to be away from family on Thanksgiving, but I am so glad you had good friends to celebrate with this year!

  11. Justine says:

    I love this: “a table full of people coming together to celebrate and overeat.” It was the cobbled-togetherness of our Thanksgiving that really made the holiday for me this year … not the perfect turkey or sides. What a beautiful reminder about what’s important about holiday celebrations!

  12. Christine says:

    Congratulations on hosting your very first Thanksgiving! It sounds like such a remarkable experience, and your positive attitude is what your children will always remember.

  13. Becky says:

    I love this post- the spirit of Thanksgiving to me is just celebrating with family and friends, and good food (whether it be turkey, chicken, tamales, or whatever we have:). I’m so glad you got to have a friend there- despite that your husband was working and the littlest were underfoot, etc. Your initiative of planning the special meal made for some wonderful memories, and your daughters will grow up remember how hard their mom worked and the fun traditions they had:).

  14. This post was so amazing and I loved reading it. It sounds like such a special day!

  15. Kathy says:

    You are such an awesome story teller Jody and you also have some pretty remarkable stories to tell! I got choked up reading your post reflecting on such a unique memorable Thanksgiving from your past and sharing what was so special about your gathering this year. I really appreciate your sentiment about finding perfect moments in the midst of the stress and chaos vs. trying to avoid the stress and chaos. I have been feeling off today and reading this helped me to put things in better perspective, as well as to imagine myself living a life like yours in Africa. Not better or worse, just different and fun to daydream about. Thank you, as always, for sharing your life here. I truly find your experiences facinating, the things that you and your family do that are so opposite of life in the States, as well as the similarities.

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you for your kind words Kathy and I’m glad this post brighten your day a bit. Hope you are feeling better now.

  16. Jen Fischer says:

    Love hearing about your experiences and you know that I can connect to the sentiment of finding perfect moments instead of focusing on stress. 🙂

  17. You’re such a great story teller…and also so wise! Perfectly imperfect seems wonderful to me.

  18. Lisa Nolan says:

    OK, your blog is getting way too popular, LOL! Loved it! Such a treasure of a story! Drinking honey wine under a makeshift tent and singing Christmas carols with a walkman (my spell checker does not even get that it’s an actual word) and speakers belongs in a movie! So we’re talking mud hut mama memoir, then screen play!

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Ha Ha, if spell checker doesn’t recognize it – I must be really old! Thanks for the vote of confidence!

  19. Kristin says:

    What a fabulous story about your Thanksgivings abroad. I’m so glad I found your post through Lori’s PMM.

  20. MsXpat says:

    Lovely post. Its wonderful to be able to share our childhood traditions with our kids. Its also exciting trying to come up with a new ways to bring our customs to your ‘adoptive’ homes.

  21. It’s amazing how much you are giving to your family and people around you while living in Malawi. My husband grew up in Tanzania and his family built their own traditions and found new ways to celebrate old ones with the family and friends. Thank you for sharing!


  1. […] Malawi/Zambia: Jody of Mud Hut Mama […]