Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Holiday Lights

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Remember Thanksgivukkah? The American celebration of Thanksgiving coincided with the first day (and second night) of Hanukkah on November 28, for the first time since the nineteenth century.

Our family marked the day in Bangkok by splurging on imported turkey and listing items we were thankful for in Thanks for Thanksgiving by Julie Markes. But our timer-photo shows just four of us, far from relatives like those in Doris Barrette’s cozy illustrations.

The closest we came to eating with clan took place on November 17, at a potluck for international school faculty. Expat teachers from several countries feasted on a day chosen partly because it fell between the U.S. and Canadian Thanksgivings. The date also coincided this year with Thailand’s Loy Krathong holiday, when floats with candles are set adrift in water and floating lanterns traverse the night sky. So we, too, converged with a festival of lights.

The teachers’ potluck featured several tables packed with food offerings, from poultry and stuffing to a New Zealander’s Pavlova garnished with passionfruit. I contributed pumpkin pie baked with kabocha, a kind of mini-pumpkin with deep green skin; the flesh is sweeter and cheaper than canned Libby’s, but yellower.

Like dinners at home, the expat get-together affirmed community and gave us permission to have fun. An American friend perched a felt turkey headband on my head; my family ate with a South African-Canadian household whose baby reclined on the table in his bouncy seat, a cooing centerpiece.

The meal took place outdoors under a long carport, the better to shelter us from possible rain and the setting sun. Parents gabbed; children snarfed dessert and headed for the playground, playing tag until we called them in, citing mosquitoes. Afterward, many families went to launch krathongs into the Chao Phraya River or the apartment pool.

The evening was enjoyable but, of course, not like home. We gathered with acquaintances and colleagues, not relatives. Our group was mostly working-age adults and children, with few elders. Many participants had lived here only a few years. And no one could take the place of our siblings, parents and grandparents.

On holidays I long not only for traditional foods, but also for time with blood kin. For moments spent reviving family dialect, quoting '80s TV shows and '90s movies, and dusting off Boggle. Or sharing memories of one grandmother’s collection of swan curios, the other’s red pop-out turkey timer. The children’s table at Christmas meals. The laughter. The chill outside.

In the tropics, holidays mean fashioning family from expat neighbors and approximating home traditions as best we can.

This year, my husband and I planned Christmas and Oshogatsu, or Japanese New Year, by checking who would be our stand-in relatives. We texted and chatted with other expats to see who would travel during the three-week school break, to Borneo or Colorado or Tokyo, and who would stay. Who could be here to help us celebrate? I sometimes wished we just knew who would show up to eat symbolic black beans and candied chestnuts, or hold white candles aloft in the darkness while singing “Silent Night.”

As it was, we wondered about basics such as where we would spend Christmas Eve. December 24 is a business day here, and the road to church gets jammed with traffic. Would we worship with the downtown congregation or join a get-together at teacher housing?

And what slant would we take on the holiday? Would our companions wax nostalgic for Christmas cake from Japan, or share my Midwestern yen for pie? Would anyone else associate Yuletide with Scandinavia, home of several of my mother’s ancestors?

I felt unexpectedly at home two weeks ago at a Danish charity sale that featured pepper nuts, which my grandparents served, and a week later at a school “festival of lights” event that referred to St. Lucia Day. I told my six-year-old on the spot about donning a robe and a tinsel crown to deliver buns to my classmates in Kansas, in a nod to Swedish practice. Expat Swedes here in Thailand know far more about Lucia than I. So did my forebears who emigrated. I can only guess how they struggled, planning holidays far from home without benefit of jets or email. They knew searingly what it meant to miss loved ones, and to improvise.

Bearing them in mind this week, I served Swedish-ish rice pudding plus a second kabocha pie. My husband amassed ingredients for New Year’s, and we invited friends not averse to seaweed or rice-flour dumplings to help eat them. The takers were two Japanese families and a Korean family, who promised traditional tteokguk soup in exchange.

When the big days come, we know we have to make them special where we are. That means bracketing expectations that we can recreate our childhood gatherings. We give thanks for our close-knit families overseas, for giving us the tools and love to keep our traditions. And we appreciate neighbors here who provide a key ingredient: companionship.

Finally, we enjoy the synchronicities. The night of the Thanksgiving potluck and Loy Krathong, while taking out garbage, I counted thirty floating lanterns in the sky near the full moon. I can think of worse childhoods than ones filled with lots of lights, from crowns of candles to soaring lanterns. Maybe it is best simply to light the lights, where and with whomever we are, and to nudge our little ones into the glow.

Loy, Loy Thanksgivukkah, yoi otoshi o, and God Jul.

Avery Fischer Udagawa grew up in Kansas and lives with her bicultural (Japanese/American) family in an international school community near Bangkok. Her translations from Japanese include J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965, a middle grade novel by Shogo Oketani. Her writing has appeared in Kyoto Journal. Please visit her website to learn more.

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