How to Celebrate Thanksgiving Abroad

by Amanda Thompson

Thanksgiving is a day best known for bringing a sense of family, togetherness, and fellowship — and maybe adding a few extra pounds to the muffin top. Aside from the copious amounts of turkey and mashed potatoes consumed, Thanksgiving celebrations are known for being a time to recognize blessings and give thanks, while being surrounded by the people who are closest to you. For those who intern, volunteer, work, or study abroad in the fall, it may not be possible to celebrate Thanksgiving traditionally with their loved ones.

Thanksgiving dinner on a table.
The table might not look exactly like this for your expat Thanksgiving, or maybe it will?

Going abroad, in general, already delivers an initial sense of homesickness, loneliness, and just all the #feeeeels of missing home. When the week of Thanksgiving rolls around, those who are already abroad may feel especially homesick, and if they don’t have travel plans, often opt to spend the holiday by themselves. Most schools abroad will give students time off to celebrate this American holiday (aka. extra travel time). As great as extra travel time sounds (who doesn’t want to spend more time  in Santorini?), not all students choose to travel out of their host country during this break.

Instead of spending the holiday hibernating in your room eating a turkey sandwich, there are alternative ways to cure your homesickness. Get you out of the house and learn how to celebrate Thanksgiving with an international twist.

Spend the day with newfound friends.

Round up the friends you’ve met that have also chose to stay in town for the weekend and plan a Friendsgiving celebration! Choose a place to celebrate Thanksgiving and have each person bring a homemade Thanksgiving-style dish — potluck style. You could even decide to take a trip to the grocery store together, buy ingredients, and then cook the dinner all together #bonding. Even though you may have only met these friends a couple of months ago, they could still be considered your “abroad family,” and I guarantee having their presence around is much more joyful than Netflix and microwavable mac-n-cheese. 

Pumpkins
You might miss out on some of your favorite holiday traditions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great Thanksgiving abroad!

Participate as a volunteer.

Put the “thanks” in Thanksgiving and spend the day giving back to your home away from home. Whether you choose to volunteer at the local church or at a community event, there are unlimited benefits to volunteering, all of which will allow you to gain experience in actively giving back. As you contribute to a cause, gain work experience, and attain an insider perspective about different people and different places, you’ll also be creating irreplaceable life memories. You may be surprised to learn that giving back can also make you a healthier person!

Attend a cultural event.

This is the perfect way to celebrate Thanksgiving. It allows you to integrate that “international twist” into an American holiday tradition. In addition to a potluck or get-together, you and your friends could do a bit of holiday research in the country you all are in and see if they celebrate a holiday similar to Thanksgiving. In the U.S., many people take part in watching the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, but what about other cultures?

Slice of pie on a plate
Try and scrounge together the ingredients for your favorite Thanksgiving treat to share with your host family.

Have you ever thought about attending a fall-themed festival or event in a country that’s not your own? In Germany, the Erntedank Tag holiday is marked by harvest festivals that are celebrated in churches and marketplaces. Or perhaps, it’s the N’cwala festival of Zambia that interests you, where feasts, music, and some of the best dancing in the country commemorates the Ngoni’s entrance into Zambia. Wherever you may be around the world, consider taking part in these kinds of cultural events. 

Nom on traditional Thanksgiving foods (or try new ones).

Trying new foods can be a creative and tasty way to celebrate Thanksgiving and give thanks. Whether you love or dislike the traditional turkey that is a staple in many U.S. Thanksgiving celebrations, there are numerous international options to consider as well. Why not satisfy your stomach with shrimp paella from Barcelona, chicken adobo from the Philippines, or gyros from Greece?

For those who would rather take a bite of tradition, most supermarkets around the world carry the classic Thanksgiving dishes, like turkey, potatoes, mac-n-cheese, green beans, and bread rolls. Even though it may not seem like much, merely eating Thanksgiving foods that you are so used to eating can help mend your homesickness and summon a wave of nostalgia. If you have a favorite dish that’s usually cooked by a relative, you could ask them for the recipe the day before you want to whip it up — that is if grandma is willing to reveal her secret to her heavenly and drool-worthy pumpkin pie.

Close up of beer glasses toasting
Spend the day with your newfound expat fam

Reach out to your loved ones back home.

Even though you’re having so much fun abroad with your new besties, don’t forget about your family and friends back home! Webcamming with your family and friends could seriously help relieve your homesickness; it’s always a great feeling to exchange Thanksgiving plans, share about the good times abroad, and vent about the challenges. Spend a good amount of time, but not the entire day, talking with your loved ones before meeting up with your international friends. Perhaps you could even virtually introduce your new friends to your friends back home — nothing better than sharing about that one time you said the wrong Italian word to the cute local at the pub!

Don’t miss out on celebrating Thanksgiving abroad (and the chance to stuff your face with delicious food) just because you are not at home. Find that perfect balance by continuing to celebrate Thanksgiving how you normally would back home, but also incorporate some traditions from your host country; try new foods, meet new people, and embrace new cultures. 

Don’t forget about the true meaning of Thanksgiving and be sure to consider giving back to the very community you’re growing to love. Trust me, when the time comes to hop on that plane ride home, you’ll be crossing your fingers and toes in hopes to come back one day.