Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family and friends. That’s the way it always was when I was growing up; the thought of spending a Thanksgiving alone did not cross my mind when I was young. I never missed a Thanksgiving with my family until I was twenty years old and attending university in Germany.
The fourth Thursday of November (the 26th) in 1971 had no holiday importance in Freiburg. I attended my regular classes that day and in the afternoon walked to the local post office to place an overseas call hoping to catch my family celebrating Thanksgiving at home. I waited for two hours to get a free line and no one answered when the phone finally rang back in Wisconsin. The holiday and home seemed awfully far away as I walked back to my apartment that evening. No turkey. No stuffing with gravy. No cranberry sauce. No pumpkin pie. I settled for a bowl of Hungarian goulash and a couple steins of beer at my favorite Stammtisch before hitting the books.
But all was not lost and I was not really alone. Several other American students and I decided, if we could not be home for the holiday, we would at the very least celebrate Thanksgiving with each other on that Saturday (the 28th). With the campus closed on the weekend we had made arrangements to use a meeting room with kitchen privileges. Each of us was tasked with shopping trips and preparation assignments, and we each invited a German friend to share our very special thanksgiving with us.
I skipped the one class I had on Friday and a friend who had PX privileges and I made our way to the Freiburg Hauptbahnhof where we caught a train north to Karlsruhe. We changed to another train to the main station in Stuttgart, and from there we took a local train out to Vaihingen where we visited the US Army commissary at Patch Barracks. We purchased two large (well, large for Germany) frozen turkeys, a few cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling (at the time these items were nowhere to be found back in Freiburg), and a few other items that reminded us of home. I took the opportunity to pick up several boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and large bottles of Log Cabin syrup to stock my own larder. Who knew when I would next make it back up to Stuttgart? We were soon retracing our route back to Freiburg where we arrived late in the evening, the turkeys already beginning to thaw.
Early the next morning I brought the defrosted turkeys to our meeting room and all of us began our preparations for the feast to come. Having been partially responsible for the acquisition of the turkeys, the task of cooking the birds also fell to me and I used my family’s rules of thumb - cook the stuffing separate from the birds and baste only at the very end of the roasting time. Thankfully we had an oven large enough to accommodate the turkeys, a small ham, and the pans of stuffing.
Everything was ready by mid-afternoon when we sat down to eat. I was given the honor of carving the birds and slicing the ham. A short prayer of thanksgiving was offered up and we toasted our absent families and friends, as well as our new friends who had come to join us. Better yet, a gentle snow fell throughout the afternoon which helped us enjoy the holiday spirit. We ate and drank until we could eat and drink no more, and it was late evening by the time I made my way back through the snow to my apartment and fell into bed.
The following day, the 29th, was Totensonntag, the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. A mostly German Protestant celebration for the deceased, it is similar to the Catholic celebration of Allerheiligen and Allerseelen (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day) at the beginning of November. It is normally a day of silence and churches forego music in their traditional liturgy. The bells of the Lutheran church a block away from my apartment, which normally began to ring early each Sunday and went on for quite some time, did not ring that day. Still, I managed to arise from bed without the aid of that cacophonous carillon, and after a few cups of coffee to declinate my internal compass and regain my orientation after a night of tryptophan-induced foodmares, I walked through the new fallen snow to the campus to clean up from the day before. A few others also showed up and we warmed up the leftovers and had a second feast before putting everything back in order.
That following Monday I returned to my classes and in the late afternoon I made my way again to the post office hoping I might reach my family. I requested an overseas line, and after another long wait for a connection, I heard that familiar ring of an American telephone. My dad was still at work, but I had a nice chat with my mother with whom I had not spoken for over three months. She told me all about the first holiday celebration I had missed at home, and I told her about my very special Thanksgiving, perhaps the first one when I fully understood the meaning of giving thanks for what I had long taken for granted. Home suddenly didn’t seem all that far away.
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