How Do Expats Celebrate Thanksgiving Overseas?

How do expats celebrate Thanksgiving Overseas? One of the biggest holidays in the U.S. and Canada is quietly being exported around the world. Here’s how some of our IL correspondents and contributors celebrate this family day overseas…

Marsha Scarbrough, IL Spain Correspondent

Spain does not celebrate Thanksgiving. However, expats in Spain create their own ways of honoring the beloved American holiday.

Expat groups often organize gatherings for members, sometimes on the weekend to accommodate those who have jobs. The American Club of Madrid is hosting a Thanksgiving Feast on November 25 from 7.30 to 10.30 p.m. at the Novotel Center. Turkey and trimmings can be had for $45 for members and $56 for non-members. On the Costa del Sol, the American Club of Estepona celebrated early with a Thanksgiving luncheon on November 22.

Local chapters of Internations, an international organization for expats, plan their own Thanksgiving festivities. This year, the Madrid chapter offers a Post-Thanksgiving Extravaganza on Friday, November 26 at James Joyce Pub. The three-course dinner at €27/$30 a head is sold out.

Expats who want to create their own feasts at home can get the essential supplies at Taste of America, a chain of stores featuring American imports, such as Jif peanut butter at €$10 for a 16 oz. jar. Stovetop stuffing, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, ready-made pie crusts, evaporated milk, Jiffy cornbread mix, and canned pumpkin are all available for a price. Heat-and-serve pumpkin pies are $23 a pop. I paid $4.80 for a can of whole berry cranberry sauce and $5.58 for a can of pumpkin.

If you want to share a feast with friends without venturing into your kitchen, many restaurants offer Thanksgiving dinner. Almost anywhere in Spain, in fact, throughout the world, you can find traditional Thanksgiving cuisine at Hard Rock Café. That American institution knows how to put together the U.S.’s favorite holiday fixin’s. At Hard Rock Café Barcelona, the dinner of turkey breast, stuffing, gravy, sweet potato mash, vegetables, and cranberry sauce costs $22.50. Pumpkin pie with caramel sauce and whipped cream adds another $7.84. Counteract the tryptophan with an espresso martini for $14.55.

A restaurant called Roll Madrid is serving Thanksgiving dinner all weekend. From the 25th to the 28th of November, your feast begins with a glass of chilled Cava (Spain’s version of champagne), followed by cream of pumpkin soup, then roast turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, brussels sprouts, creamed corn, cranberry sauce, and bread. For €40/$45, a choice of desserts, as well as a glass of wine or a craft beer, are included.

On the Costa del Sol, Jacks Smokehouse restaurants in Benalmádena and Puerto Banús will serve Thanksgiving dinner on November 25. A two-course meal is priced at $27, and three courses are $33.78. In Barcelona, the CocoVail Beer Hall will be broadcasting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as well as two NFL football games as it serves the classic dinner on November 25. $28 gets you turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, cornbread, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

Terry Coles, IL Portugal Correspondent

Ask any American why they celebrate Thanksgiving Day and surely, they will reminisce of their younger days. Colorful turkeys were constructed out of paper while little girls wore white pilgrim bonnets, and boys’ dark hats with buckles. Homes were filled with sumptuous aromas of pies, cookies, turkey, and trimmings. Families and friends gathered around large tables decorated with orange fall leaves and floral arrangements.

Mornings were spent in front of televisions to watch the well-known Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade live from New York City. Along the parade route, life-sized balloons peeked into windows of tall buildings while marching bands filled the crisp fall air with melodious tunes of the holiday season. After dinner, some focused on football games broadcast live while others needed to take a nap after overindulging on food because everyone knows that calories don’t count on this special occasion.

Although Thanksgiving is an American holiday, when Americans move abroad they bring with them some of their traditions. Throughout Portugal expats organize Thanksgiving Day meals at hotels and restaurants. For those who prefer to cook at home for friends or family, turkeys can be ordered from local butcher shops, called talhos, or found frozen at British supermarkets that specialize in imported items.

Turkey, called peru, in Portuguese is commonly eaten in Portugal throughout the year, but typically sold in parts, not as the whole bird. Pumpkin, called abóbora, is also a popular vegetable here used in savory, not sweet dishes.

Synonymous with Thanksgiving Day is Black Friday—which is almost a holiday in itself in the U.S. On this crazy day of shopping frenzy, Americans wake before dawn to stand in mile-long lines at big discount stores to take advantage of unbelievable, low-priced deals. This insane American tradition has become popular in many countries around the world. But while I have noticed signs for Black Friday sales in other countries, including Portugal, the event is far more low-keyed without the need to camp out overnight in parking lots to be the first into the store when it opens.

Tuula Rampont, IL France Correspondent

French people are very curious about Thanksgiving and see it as a sweet, endearing American holiday. Even though they might not know much about the history behind our beloved turkey-fueled “fête”, they are quick to wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings and I always receive numerous well-wishes every year when the date rolls around.

Being an American abroad, I definitely get a few pangs of nostalgia between Halloween and the start of the Christmas season. Thanksgiving is a singularly American holiday. I know that my fellow expats feel the same, as there are many parties organized by expat associations across France. A very popular blog that I follow, The Provence Post has been listing the Thanksgiving get-togethers planned around the country since I moved here in 2010. More than any other time of the year, I believe Americans feel the need to gather together in France. Quite often these parties are the most popular events of the year.

Celebrations are held everywhere from American-friendly restaurants in Paris to chic sports cafés in Monaco—and everywhere in between.  The American Club of the Riviera’s Thanksgiving gala takes place at an elegant venue in Monte Carlo, while a local specialty supermarket in Aix-en-Provence (southern France) offers takeaway and delivery service with all of the fixings—calling it a “home-cooked holiday meal without the fuss.” The Anglo-American Group of Provence invites the local community to its annual Thanksgiving dinner in Aix, and the American Church in Paris opens its doors for a weekend holiday celebration.

Although I love a good expat party, these past few years I’ve really enjoyed getting together with a close American girlfriend and cooking up a storm. While some of the classic dishes used to be a bit complicated to replicate (a good green bean casserole needs a dense, creamy soup), we’ve become quite adept at perfecting our specialties. I’m in charge of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade mac and cheese, and the desserts—we like a good cheesecake a selection of pies. Amanda, my dear friend from South Carolina, does the turkey and sauce, stuffing, green beans, and corn bread. I have elegant (wreaths and candles) and a bit kitschy (a large paper turkey centerpiece) decorations which I pull out of storage every year. I thank, wholeheartedly, my American friends back home who have sent me different items to add to my “Thanksgiving collection”.

We come together as two blended, French-American families with a total of four kids between us. A traditional French meal always starts with an aperitif, which we go really light on considering the size of the meal to come. It’s always fun to explain the meaning of the holiday and to ask everyone around the table what they’re thankful for—especially the French. Their standard answer seems to be, “The food!”, as the French, being the French, love a good meal. They might not grasp the concept of our American Thanksgiving 100%, but they do know that it’s a very special time of year where we share a sense of community and the pleasure of spending time together around the table—something the French know how to do very well.

Kathleen Evans, IL Costa Rica Correspondent

Although the turkey-consuming Canadian and U.S. versions of Thanksgiving are not official holidays in Costa Rica, there are plenty of expats here from both countries.  Therefore, if you are seeking a traditional Thanksgiving dinner get-together you will find it!

Our first Thanksgiving we spent in the mountainous cloud forest of Monteverde.  We fully expected to have a rice and beans dinner alone, but were pleasantly surprised when a friend of a friend invited us to a celebration with an expat family from Philadelphia.  There, we met an array of “orphaned” expats from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and a couple of Ticos too. Pot luck style, we enjoyed a real turkey and all the traditions—including some good ol’ US football.

When we made our way to the Gold Coast and had established a group of friends, we looked into hosting our own Thanksgiving, but had sticker shock when a decent-sized turkey (feeding eight to 10 people) at our local AutoMercado grocery store was $90 to $100. That year we opted for chickens rather than the big bird!

That was nearly a decade ago and the region has grown. Now there is greater demand for turkeys from North Americans as well as are more grocery stores stocking them. Given those factors alone, the price of a turkey has dropped. In the highly trafficked expat and tourist areas you will find many restaurants also catering to the requests for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

In 2020 during the worst pandemic closures, we enjoyed two Thanksgivings—Canadian in October, and the U.S. in November.  A Canadian expat restaurateur got her hands on some fine birds and put together a full meal with stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans—and yes, cranberry sauce.  A group of North American expats traveled up the coast with us to dine together (open-air) for the first time since March.

On the November date, we ordered complete take-out meals from our favorite BBQ restaurant which is owned by a U.S. expat.  These were extra special as the turkeys were smoked. Dinner was shared with a part-time expat family celebrating the recently opened Costa Rican airports and the ability to return to their vacation home. Many reasons to give thanks!

You will hear these options echoed across the country by North American expats. If you want to celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving holiday, it is possible just about anywhere in Costa Rica. Whether you choose to cook the bird yourself, order out, dine out or join your expat “family” for a potluck.  And if you are feeling a bit homesick, you can invite your family to spend the holidays with you.  With all major North American airlines flying into 2 different international airports, reuniting the family is easier than you might think.

One final note, you may not find exactly every ingredient you need—for example, sweet potatoes in Costa Rica are camotes. Although not exactly the same, they make a great substitute.

Happy “pura vida” Thanksgiving!

David Hammond, IL Uruguay Correspondent

In Uruguay, many expats from the U.S. gather for Thanksgiving. And when they do, they’re often joined by Uruguayan friends—attracted by the idea of celebrating gratitude.

However, putting on a Thanksgiving dinner in Uruguay takes planning. Turkeys, which are not raised in Uruguay, are imported by local supermarkets from the US or France. So to assure a turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s sometimes necessary to reserve one ahead of time. Also, cranberry sauce is difficult to find in Uruguay. So, expats who make visits to the US, return with cans of cranberry sauce in their luggage to save for Thanksgiving.

But plan ahead for Thanksgiving, many expats do. And I’ve enjoyed several well-executed turkey dinners with cranberry sauce in Uruguay. The best was at the home of an expat English couple, just east of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. As a kind gesture, they prepared a traditional Thanksgiving meal for their friends from the U.S. This included me and a U.S./Uruguayan couple with three children.

Beside each place setting was a scroll with the evening’s menu. It started with an elegant salad, followed by the main course which included roast turkey, turkey dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and string beans. And it finished off with pie and coffee. Each dish was prepared with care and served with love. And both the food and the company was a nourishing experience.

However, another Thanksgiving I remember was different. It was at the apartment of a friend in Montevideo who’d invited both his expat and Uruguayan friends over for Thanksgiving dinner on short notice. (He didn’t plan ahead.)

While his apartment was small, the backyard, with a patio and built-in barbecue, was large. The idea was for some the expats from the U.S. to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the kitchen, a few of the Uruguayans would put on a traditional Uruguayan barbecue in the yard, and then we’d all share.

Uruguay is in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are opposite. So, instead of fall, Thanksgiving comes in the spring. So we planned to eat in the yard at a couple of outdoor tables and on folding chairs.

After his invitation went out my friend learned it was too late to get an affordable turkey. So, he ended up stuffing two chickens to put in the oven.

It’s a tradition in Uruguay to eat dinner later (after 9 p.m.), so people started arriving at 7.30 p.m. However, more guests showed up than expected, and it became evident the chickens wouldn’t go very far. On top of that, the propane tank that fueled the oven ran out. It was too late in the evening to get a fresh tank delivered, so the chickens were cut into parts and put in the microwave to finish cooking.

In contrast, the Uruguayans manning the outdoor barbecue were practiced and prepared. (Some of us slipped out to buy more meat to add to the barbecue.)

Even though we didn’t have turkey and cranberry sauce, it was a good meal. Plates were filled with small portions of chicken, dressing, and yams from the kitchen. Along with cuts of beef, sausages, bread, and salad from the barbecue area. As we started eating, we took turns sharing something we were grateful for. It was a warm way to connect—and it set the tone for the enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner conversation that followed.

Valerie Fortney Schneider, IL Italy Correspondent

Thanksgiving; the day when my fellow Americans gather over a nationwide banquet, when expats lament the lack of canned pumpkin and cranberries, and when friends and family inevitably, innocently ask us, “What do Italians do for Thanksgiving?”  The answer is, nothing.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday here.  For their part, our Italian friends, upon hearing the words “festa del ringraziamento,” immediately respond with, “Ah, si.  Tacchino!” accompanied by sweeping hand gestures.  They’ve all seen enough film and TV images of enormous birds roasted to perfection and carved tableside to know our national penchant for turkey on that day.  They are always happy to find out first-hand that it is, indeed, our official nationally-indulged holiday food.

Expat friends in other regions of Italy often gather together for Thanksgiving dinner parties. My husband Bryan and I live in rural Basilicata with no other expats close at hand, but that doesn’t mean we renounce our treasured traditions. Many times, it will just be the two of us keeping the feast with a small dinner at home—adjusting the obligatory foods. For example, turkey breast cutlets with stuffing rolled up inside, and a white-wine gravy sauce, mashed potatoes, and an apple pie. I love pumpkin pie but that particular tradition is a problem; I can get the pumpkin but have to cook it, mash it, drain it for days, and then make the pie. I’ve done that when we have had guests, but it is not a ritual I want to tackle every year.

We did a big blow-out meal once. In our first year in Basilicata we wanted to thank all our friends and local famiglia for their help in our acclimating, getting home renovations done, and for accepting us into the community. A friend’s brother is a butcher so he procured an enormous turkey and I cooked it, along with all the other necessary dishes, in another friend’s agriturismo restaurant kitchen. It was a three-day cooking marathon, and with a couple of helpers, I turned out a feast for 30 guests, and they all loved it. The cranberry sauce wasn’t really to their taste, but they’d seen the holiday scenes in movies and were thrilled to get to participate in an authentic American Thanksgiving for themselves.

We’ve hosted a few friends for small Thanksgiving dinners through the years, but have to move the festa to Saturday evenings, since Italian friends are working on Thursdays. Two years ago, a local farmer had raised a few turkeys along with his chickens and rabbits, we were able to get a locally raised organic bird, sending our guests home with plates of leftovers, just like our American family gatherings had always done.

This year, we may have a couple of friends over for a whole boneless turkey breast done porchetta style -spices rubbed in and rolled up then baked low and slow. Or maybe it will just be us for a simple meal. Whatever we decide, there will be turkey and potatoes and a pie, in some form, and a list of thankfulness, which is the most important part.

Jessica Ramesch, IL Panama Editor

There are quite a few Panamanian families who celebrate Thanksgiving, even though it is not a traditional holiday here. If you’d like to cook a traditional Thanksgiving supper with turkey or ham, you’ll find that supermarkets in Panama City feature them around the U.S. Thanksgiving (and Christmas, which is a major holiday here).

There are also restaurants and hotels that offer Thanksgiving dinners, so if you don’t particularly want to cook a big meal, you can let someone else do it. Even caterers are happy to craft something specially for you.

The bottom line, you can celebrate the holidays any way you want to. You could have fun learning about local ingredients and maybe adapt your usual recipes. (And if you choose one of Panama’s more remote areas, you may have to).

You could perhaps serve a local root vegetable like yuca instead of turnips. Or substitute your usual cranberry sauce with a sauce made from uchuvas. I discovered these tart yellow berries at my local supermarket, and now I love to use them in salads.

But don’t worry…if you have a hankering for a taste of home, you can stick to your original recipe. Cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie filling, candied yams, and more are all available at upscale supermarkets like Riba Smith.

Hope this helps, and best of luck as you continue your search.

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