Musings on Thanksgiving & Black Friday Traditions

In a three-bedroom apartment in State College Pa., a pan of creamy green bean casserole and a plate of pumpkin pie sat on the faux marble breakfast bar, both dishes still untouched. The aroma of couscous simmering in a spicy, tomato-based broth rose from the saucepan and wafted through the kitchen. Past the oven — in which a large, spice rubbed turkey was roasting — and into the living room, where a Christmas-themed movie played on HBO. Thirteen-year-old Semi sat crossed-legged on the carpet, eyes glued to the set as she recited movie lines from memory. Ade, shook her head endearingly, then bustled back into the kitchen to check on the turkey while fending off her little brother, Aziz, who declared he was hungry; when could he eat Thanksgiving dinner?

That was nine years ago, and my first experience with this unique American holiday tradition. Knowing that I was far away from home and family, Ade kindly invited me to stay with her for the holidays. I gladly accepted. In a university town like State College, staying back when practically everyone else had left for home could be downright depressing, especially during the winter months.

International students like me usually made plans to visit somewhere a little more exciting — that is, if we had a budget. Friends sometimes invited me to stay with them during the breaks. Some were American, while others were immigrants to like Ade. With the latter, the holiday experience usually included a bonus in the form of something specific from their own homeland. That’s why spicy couscous (and the most delicious kind) was on the dinner table at Ade’s that evening, as her family is from Cote D’Ivoire. Everything else about my first Thanksgiving celebration with Ade mirrored typical American traditions. A couple of Ade’s close girl friends also dropped by to hang out and feast on her delicious, home-cooked meal. In between the animated girly chatter, we found time to take turns at saying what we were thankful for. After dinner, it was back to movies, while playing a very noisy round of Monopoly. When Ade’s dad came home (chefs rarely get a break during the holidays,) he had his dinner, and then passed out on the couch after the football game was over. We cleaned up, the friends went home, and then it was time for bed.

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The day after Thanksgiving is the day to go spend money! Black Friday is the equivalent of Boxing Day in the States. People camp outside their favourite stores to be the first ones to snag rock-bottom deals on all kinds of goods. It used to be that doors open at four or five in the morning, but in recent years, businesses open as early as 10 p.m. to take advantage of would-be customers who are still awake at that hour. Electronics, household goods and brand name sports shoes are usually some of the first items to be snapped up. And you can bet that the queues for these products to be hours long.

Your initial reaction might be, “Whoa, people here take their shopping seriously.” That’s because it’s true you get some of the best deals of the year. Lots of shoppers make lists of what they want and make their purchases at solid, discounted prices. Some are doing their end-of-year gift shopping too. Expats and tourists, you’ll find certain brand names and designer items very affordable, when at home they are tearfully expensive. Coach, Calvin Klein, Guess, Nine West, and Kenneth Cole are some that come to mind.

A tip for navigating Black Friday shopping? Strength in numbers. If you’re doing the camp-outside-your-favourite-store thing, it won’t hurt to have a friend show up a couple of hours after you joined the queue so that he can keep your place in line, leaving you free to go and oh, look for a bathroom perhaps? Same thing for when you’ve procured items for purchase at a store. Have John deal with the checkout at store no. 1 while the Rest of Ya’ll go shop at store no. 2. When that John is done at store no.1, the Rest of Y’all might be waiting in line at store no. 2, so now John can browse at store no. 2 until the Rest of Y’all reach a cashier. And repeat at other stores.

Yes, if there’s one thing I’ve found out Black Friday is that if you want to minimise on the hassles that come with peak-hour shopping and maximise the fun part of the whole experience: You. Do. Need. To. Strategize. Also, don’t forget to check out the outlet malls, which offer equally good or even better deals the individual stores in regular malls, especially for clothes.

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But I have to admit something. Over the years, I haven’t celebrated this holiday consistently enough to get the hang of its’ traditions. Not the cooking of such a large bird. Definitely not the football (sorry fans,) and not even the symbolic saying of thanks. I appreciate the historical aspect, but shouldn’t we all be grateful for what we have every day?

This year, I spotted a Tweet that said: “Thanksgiving is when America says thanks for all that we have. Black Friday is when we decide that, actually, it’s not enough.” Just as I was about to hit the retweet button, I recalled Thanksgiving at Ade’s, which to this day, despite the other Thanksgiving dinners I’ve had with others, the experience remains unrivalled. I recalled the others who, over the past 10 years, extended me warmth and unselfish helping hands without ever being prompted.

That changed my mind about retweeting. I did have something to be truly grateful for. Besides, I think I’m still too young to be a regular cynic. 😉

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