The Annual Giving of Thanks to America

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A West Indian-American Thanksgiving dinner typically includes traditional Thanksgiving dishes as well as Caribbean delicacies.

By Dr. Vishnu Bisram

This is a long weekend in which Americans of all backgrounds are observing the traditional Thanksgiving Day holiday with family reunions, church service, feasts, charitable offerings, and travel. And Caribbean immigrants are thick into the celebration. They are counting their blessings giving thanks to America for welcoming them and for enjoying a better quality of life than in their home country. And they give thanks by offering charities with the poorer sections of society – donating to organizations that help the less fortunate. And as they do with all other festivals, they celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in their own unique way with their traditional cuisine and drinks.

Thanksgiving Day is a historical celebration in the U.S going back to the 1600s since the early settlement of North America by Europeans – the Europeans gave thanks for the harvest to the natives for helping them to grow food and building shelters. It is a national holiday, a kind of a spiritual day (without denomination) observed on the fourth Thursday of every November with businesses and schools closed in recess for an extended weekend. The festival sets up a state of mind for the Christmas and Hanukah (Jewish) holidays which is a month later.

The Thanksgiving holiday grew out of the harvest celebrations of England and is celebrated in the Fall. The early English immigrants introduced it in the U.S giving thanks for the harvest and the blessings of the past year. And since that time every wave of immigrants, including recent arrivals like the large Caribbean community settled in the NY metropolitan region since 1970s, have joined in the celebration by adding their own ethnic flavor giving thanks and to the traditional cuisine, music, drinks and entertainment.

America has been kind and receptive to immigrants enabling their rapid rise in income having their own homes and cars and post-secondary education. Many even work at two jobs and pursue higher education. Caribbean people are for the most part success stories with one of the highest income groups in the U.S contributing a lot more in taxes than in the benefits they receive. Many have become successful entrepreneurs in a very short time after arrival. And many have joined the ranks of professionals (in medicine, law, engineering, and computer technology) with some of the highest salaries in the nation.

Caribbean people, as indeed most Americans, view Thanksgiving as an occasion for family reunion and dinners. Relatives normally take turn hosting dinner over the four days period from Thursday to Sunday. Dinner normally includes the traditional baked or roasted turkey, pumpkin pie, sweet yams, corn, cranberry jelly, and salad (including sugar beets) with wine and other hard liquor. It is supplemented with traditional dishes including varied curries, dhal puri, pachounie, phulourie, bara, fried rice, chowmein, and fried channa as snacks and their favorite drinks — mauby and sorrel for the children and Caribbean rum for the adults. For desert, there is Black cake, pumkin pie, sweet potato pie and Indo-Caribbeans throw in rasmalai, gulab jamoon, etc. And it is not unusual for them to substitute the turkey with curried duck, chicken, mutton, and goat, etc.

Giving is part of the Caribbean culture. And people donate food to shelters and host dinners for the unfortunate. Others donate foods or labor at pantries. Their assistance helps to ease social problems such as hunger, poverty and homelessness in the city. Churches also host dinners for the poor and homeless. Giving back to society is considered as part of their duty because the community has so much to be thankful for being healthy and alive and escaping the impoverishment of the Caribbean. They are a freely giving people, very kind-hearted and compassionate. And they do not restrict their giving only to their own kind. Many used the Thanksgiving occasion to give generously to the charities of their choice, including the Red Cross and the American Cancer Institute in addition to their local mandir, masjid and church. Others send money to friends and relatives in Guyana. To give thanks, some bake turkeys and cakes that are donated to homeless shelters in Brooklyn and the Bowery in downtown Manhattan.

Thanksgiving Day is usually celebrated with the largest parade in the nation on Fifth Avenue featuring all kinds of magnificent floats and balloons of cartoon characters and a host of Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. Caribbean people patronize the parade or watch it on TV.

By observing the festival, Caribbean people are participating in a mainstream American celebration in the same manner that they celebrate their own traditional festivals such as Phagwah, Deepavalli, Eid, Qurbani, Shivratri, Youman Nabi, Christmas, etc. They want to give thanks for the progress they have made in America, the land that has given them the opportunity to realize their dreams. They are contributing in making America a better place to live and sharing their wealth and giving back to the society to which they owe their success. They are very thankful for their well-being in America.

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The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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