Thanksgiving Traditions — Are they the Same Overseas?

image of cranberries cookingThere’s nothing like the holidays to bring out the best — or the worst — in you when you’re living overseas.

If you’re lonely, disoriented, or homesick, holidays can make you feel much worse. If you’re enjoying your life, holidays can be a lot of fun.

But guess what? That can happen when you’re in your home country, too. It’s really about your overall quality of life and what you make of it.

For a few years before we moved to Panama, Thanksgivings seemed very odd to me. No longer were we hosting a houseful of grown children (we have five), but just my husband, our youngest daughter, and me. It was way too quiet and low key.

Our first Thanksgiving in Las Tablas, Panama was definitely not quiet and ended up being a lot of fun.

We moved there in the spring of 2012. I missed Memorial Day and July 4th, so I decided I wasn’t going to let Thanksgiving pass me by.

Fortunately, one of our expat friends made it easy. Jim decided that his restaurant, Ponchalos, would serve a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. We made our reservations early.

On Thanksgiving Day, we met up with a group of friends at the restaurant, met some new folks, and saw some others we hadn’t hung out with in a while.

And we had a wonderful time.

Our second year in Las Tablas, we got together with a group of friends and all brought food for the feast. Jane played hostess, showing off her newly completed home.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle. . .

Jane called me a couple of hours before we were due to gather. “I think this turkey’s bad,” she informed me. It looked okay, but it didn’t smell right.

After some discussion we decided it wasn’t worth risking food poisoning, so Jane trudged into town to pick up some chicken instead.

I was bitterly disappointed. I love turkey, and hadn’t had any since the year before. It’s not something you find in Panama — at least not in our part of Panama. The stores brought in frozen birds from the US before Thanksgiving, but prices were $8 a pound and more.

Even without the turkey, we had a wonderful time and excellent food. We had a variety of people, a variety of dishes, and excellent company.

This year, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with family in South Carolina.

“But what about traditions?” you may be wondering.

Every family develops its own little traditions, quirks and idiosyncracies around holidays. Growing up, we had to have certain dishes:

  • Turkey (of course)
  • Gravy
  • Stuffing (of course)
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Sweet potatoes or yams
  • Hubbard squash
  • Green peas
  • Creamed onions
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Apple pie

These were the must-haves. Different years we might have additions to the menu, but never, ever, subtractions.

It never occurred to me to have mashed potatoes until I got married and my husband asked me, “where are the mashed potatoes?”

Oops. . .

Similarly, it just wasn’t Thanksgiving dinner without creamed onions. Until. . .

. . . The year we got the plague.

Not the literal plague, fortunately.

The extended family was all converging on a retreat center in Virginia. We were driving up from Florida with our five kids, the youngest at that time about a year and a half old. One sister came with her husband and two kids from the DC area, another from western Massachusetts with husband and daughter, and my brother came from upstate New York with his son.

Also present were my uncle and parents. Nineteen of us altogether.

My nephew, it turned out, had been throwing up in the car. My brother assumed he was carsick, but that turned out not to be the case.

The next night, one of my boys was sick in the middle of the night. Then another kid, and another kid. . . The one of the adults. . . then another. . .

On Sunday we drove back to Florida in various stages of illness and recovery. Fortunately this bug didn’t last long, but it was nasty while it had you.

And that ended, forever, the inclusion of creamed onions with our Thanksgiving dinner tradition.

Oh, we knew good and well that the poor onions weren’t responsible for our plight. We didn’t blame them. We just couldn’t eat them. Since the only time we ever had them was at Thanksgiving, they became inextricably wrapped up for us with nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant experiences.

The next year, when my mother tried to add them to the menu, we explained as nicely as we could that creamed onions weren’t happening.

And that, ladies and gents, is how traditions evolve.

Since moving to Panama, and now back to the US, I feel much less bound by tradition. I think that’s a good thing. As long as I

  1. Don’t work that day
  2. Spend part of the day with friends and/or family

I think I’m good.

How about you? How are you planning to spend Thanksgiving?

photo by Ruthanne Reid on Flickr


  1. This year we’re really looking forward to spending the holiday with the expat group that we’ve met in Manta, Ecuador. Thanksgiving has always been our favorite family and friends holiday and the last two Thanksgivings that we’ve been traveling have been a little lonely. There’s nothing like new friends and good conversation to make a terrific day and Pumpkin Pie! Forget about the turkey, Susanna, it’s ALL about the pie! Happy Thanksgiving to you and Mark! Anita & Dick

    • FutureExpat says:

      So glad you’ve found a group to celebrate with, Nita. It made a big difference to us our first year in Panama. 🙂

      But as for it being all about the pie. . . for my husband it is, but not for me. Give me the turkey and cranberries and you can keep your pie!

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