The traditional, all-American conception of Thanksgiving usually centers on family, football and far too much food. For Princeton students who are unable to go home for the holiday, however, Thanksgiving takes on a new meaning.
Students most often cite the high cost of travel, the limited time off, the need to catch up on work and the fact that Fall Break was only a few weeks earlier as the primary reasons for not going home for Thanksgiving. "Being from California, I prefer staying here," said Dave Rose '08, a Wilson College RCA. "The hassle of flying home just isn't worth it for a lot of people, even if they do want to go home."
After staying with family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving during his freshman and sophomore years, Rose remained on campus as a junior. He offered a Thanksgiving meal in his room last year and will do so again this year to entertain some of the roughly 50 Wilson freshmen and sophomores that the Wilson Director of Student Life Michael Olin predicts will remain on campus for the break. "I was talking to my advisees, and they came up with the idea of cooking dinner ourselves," Rose said. "We got funding from the college, they took us shopping at McCaffrey's for groceries, and the day before and the day of [Thanksgiving] we spent a lot of time cooking."
The menu — turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffed squash, green beans and pumpkin pie — rivaled that of any home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner. Rose hosted over a dozen people in his common room. The meal was huge success, he said, and the setting and food created a cozier feel than the campus dining halls. "It's nice to have a dinner in a close, homey environment instead of in the dining hall," he said.
Rose plans on continuing and expanding the new tradition, moving the cooking to Dodge-Osborn Hall and the meal to the Wilson Commons.
While Rose has established his own tradition, Lauren Ledley '10 will be spending her Thanksgiving on campus and away from her family for the first time. Though she is sad she can't return to her native Florida, she said, she plans to make the most of the holiday. "We all seem to think of Thanksgiving as a time to be with family," she said. "If you're not going to be with family, friends at least can try to create a sense of 'school family.' "
Ledley will be joined by a few friends and her boyfriend, who is flying from Florida to spend the holiday at Princeton with her; they are splitting the cost of the plane ticket. "Since I'm only off for four days and he's off for the week, it made more sense for him to come here," she said. "Plus, neither of us has had a Thanksgiving in the Northeast, where it's cold and the trees are turning."
Though she hasn't yet made plans for Thursday dinner, Ledley is considering several options. In addition to the Thanksgiving meals planned by the University, her boss from Murray-Dodge Cafe invited Ledley to join her at her home. Her RCA has also reached out to get a sense of who will be staying on campus and what activities they would enjoy. "I think there's a general feeling of sympathy amongst the community and a desire to make sure everyone has something to do," she said.
Olin agreed. "Campuses do feel very empty during breaks," he said. "Anything the residential colleges, RCAs and dining halls can do is well-received and appreciated."
Other students spend Thanksgiving with their friends who live close by, enjoying a home-cooked meal in a new setting. Joey Mayer '10 invited three of her friends — including a Californian and a Southerner — to eat with her family in North Salem, N.Y., for the holiday. "My parents have always told me to bring anyone I wanted, so I didn't hesitate to ask," she said. For her, Thanksgiving has always been a holiday shared with both family and friends. "My dad always brings about five foreign coworkers from his office," Mayer said. "To my parents, Thanksgiving is about being with people, and if someone has no place to go, they're coming to my house."
Mayer imagines her friends will help with the cooking and take part in football and poker games. Her parents enjoy the chance to get to know her friends in a relaxed setting. "My parents don't come to visit a lot, so it's one of the few times that they will meet my friends," she said. "It's nice for them to put a name to a face."
Overall, Olin believes staying on campus can be a positive experience. In particular, events during this time help students strengthen their relationships with others who don't make it home. "If there are opportunities for students to get together, it can enhance the sense of community," he said. "If nothing is planned, students can feel lonely or bored. But if there are just a couple of things to entertain them, it can make a huge difference."
The International Thanksgiving
"I think the international students really enjoy learning about Thanksgiving," Olin said. "Since they are most likely to stay on campus both for Thanksgiving and other breaks, they appreciate the events the colleges and other groups hold."
Last year, listening to his friends compare notes on their plans for Thanksgiving, London native Will Palley '10, who is also a Princetonian contributing photographer, felt left out. "[Campus] was nearly deserted," he said. "I felt like I was the only one not with my family, which made me miss home even more." Palley, like many other international students, turned to an unconventional kind of celebration.
With a small group of other international students who had stayed behind for the holiday, Palley decided to create a new tradition. For an unconventional Thanksgiving dinner at a local student's house, students embraced their cultural differences by dressing in the traditional formalwear of their respective countries. Many of them also prepared a native dish to bring along. "It was great. We had people from Germany, Argentina, Nigeria and a bunch of other places," Palley said. Palley's nontraditional Thanksgiving dinner gave him and his friends an outlet to discuss the traditions of their countries and learn about the customs of others. The dinner was such a hit that it is now a ritual among Palley and his close multicultural friends. "It's almost like being home for a regular holiday. But this way, I get to share a piece of my home with my friends."
Mexican student Rafael Palomino '10 also approaches Thanksgiving as an opportunity for cultural understanding, but the culture he wants to understand is American. "All I knew about Thanksgiving before I came to Princeton was that, for some reason, there were a lot of really good sales," he said. Last fall, Palomino celebrated his first Thanksgiving with a friend in Connecticut. "We made a toast, we watched the parade, and we ate a lot," he said. "It reminded me a lot of Christmas in Mexico. It seemed like a real 'American Thanksgiving.' " Palomino said he is aware, however, that though the basic traditions of Thanksgiving do not differ much from family to family, there are certain quirks and customs that are unique to specific households. "We played this one game that was really fun, but really intricate, and I was wondering, 'Do all Americans play this?' They had to explain to me that it was only a tradition in their family." To get a holistic view of the way the holiday is celebrated, Palomino plans to spend Thanksgiving with a different friend's family every year in a process he calls "family jumping." This year, Palomino is visiting Oklahoma City. "I like the holiday. It's cool to see how different Americans celebrate it," he said.
Thanksgiving, however, isn't a foreign concept to all international students. "From what I understand, Canadian Thanksgiving is a lot like American Thanksgiving — we have a big dinner and the food is essentially the same," explained Cliff Whetung '11, of Petersborough, Ont. "Except in Canada, we usually eat beaver nuggets." Whetung is spending the holiday away from home for the first time this year, celebrating with a friend's family in New York. While he realizes that he is unlikely to find his foreign delicacy on his hosts' table, Whetung is looking forward to the holiday as a "home away from home" experience. "I didn't get to go home for [Canadian] Thanksgiving this year, so it'll be nice to celebrate ... Even if it's with another family, I'm sure it'll be a lot like home."
Most students from overseas note that they would like to spend the time with their own families, but the different twists that Palley, Palomino and Whetung have put on the traditional American Thanksgiving are becoming traditions in themselves that serve as reminders of their homelands. Whether they are sharing accounts from their countries or mirroring traditions from home, international students looking for a fun way to spend their Thanksgiving only need a bit of creativity. As Palley explained, "We couldn't go home ... so we found a way to bring home to us."