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A Philippine Thanksgiving

By David Haldane

Dec. 8, 2022



It was like all the other Thanksgivings I’ve experienced in my life.

Except, instead of turkey, a roasted pig graced the center of our table. And where one would expect mashed potatoes and gravy, lay stinky fish with noodles.

Welcome to Thanksgiving in the Philippines.

It was all staged for my benefit, of course. Though most Filipinos possess a basic awareness of the holiday, few have ever celebrated it. And while they also know what turkey is, most have never tasted it.

And so we made do with what we had. And, at my request, celebrated an intimate Thanksgiving with family and friends.

I don’t remember when this annual day of gratitude became my favorite holiday. Probably after I exited the rebelliousness of youth to embrace a loving family. Most likely when I’d reached sufficient age and maturity to recognize the imperative for a day of giving thanks.

What I remember distinctly is my Filipino wife’s first Thanksgiving in America. She had never even seen a turkey, let alone cooked one. And so we bought a pre-cooked Thanksgiving dinner, complete with all the trappings, at the local Walmart store. And, working together, somehow laid it out on our table for the best Thanksgiving ever. Because, like the pilgrims before us, we were celebrating a recent arrival to a brand-new frontier.

Which is why it surprised me to learn that the University of Alaska Southeast canceled this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. While the annual Nov. 24-27 break still graced the university’s calendar, it had been unceremoniously renamed “Fall Break” instead of the traditional “Thanksgiving Closure.” And all because a crusading professor of native languages had called for “decolonizing Thanksgiving” from which, he claimed, some people feel excluded. “We are not a white Christian organization,” he huffily pontificated, “but a university.”

To his credit, Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe columnist who reported on this nonsense, had a ready reply. “The notion that designating a day to give thanks as a society is something only white people do,” he wrote, “is absurd on its face.”

Nor, he argued, is it uniquely Christian.

Most Americans, of course, understand the origins of that idea. The first Thanksgiving, they learned in school, was a 1621 harvest festival convened by Christian pilgrims fleeing religious persecution and members of the native American Wampanoag tribe who they had befriended. It was only later that some historians characterized those early settlers as colonizers and the Native Americans as an oppressed indigenous people.

But Jacoby cites sources with more nuanced views. The real first Thanksgiving, they maintain, occurred on the day the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock where, after wading ashore, “They fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean… to set their feet on the firm and stable earth.”

Those words were written by William Bradford, one of the expedition’s leaders who, like many of his comrades, had been inspired by the Hebrew Bible and Jewish religious custom. In giving thanks on the beach, he later wrote, those first Pilgrims were fulfilling the Jewish religious obligation to publicly “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.”

Whatever its origins, I believe that impulse is universal. Which is why I adore setting aside one day a year just to give thanks. And why the Filipinos at my table two weeks ago bore wide smiles as they expressed gratitude for being alive, well fed, and simply present.

“Thanksgiving,” Jacoby writes in his insightful column, “is for Americans of every race and ethnicity, every faith and no faith, US-born natives and just-arrived immigrants.” To which I would add one more category: not-yet and never-to-be immigrants in the Philippines and around the world.

“Without each other,” the column concludes, “all of us would be poorer.”

Nowhere have I read truer words.





David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino,” is now available on Amazon for pre-order. A former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, where he helped write two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.



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