Thanksgiving Traditions

Since we are often asked how we celebrate Thanksgiving in China, I thought I’d give you a glimpse into our home. I’ll put some photos together and insert them later- just couldn’t go through old photographs right now and still get a meal on the table!

Many years ago, about 33, we moved away from the East Coast, where our families lived, to Austin, Texas. That Thanksgiving we felt pretty low as we looked forward to celebrating apart from our parents for the first time, but as we thought and prayed about it, we realized that we knew many people who were in that circumstance. So waaaaay back then, we developed a family tradition of inviting to our home any friends (or sometimes strangers) who had no one with whom to celebrate Thanksgiving. This turned a bleak outlook into one of anticipation. We asked them to bring favorite side dishes or desserts that were traditional in their homes. One benefit of that was that some of their favorites became our favorites, too.

Over these years we have had many happy Thanksgiving celebrations and the joy of having new friends as well as old ones around our table praising God for His benefits to us. Even if we weren’t always blood “kin” family, we were family for the day! And through the years this became our favorite holiday. We never call it Turkey Day. For sure, turkey is our friend and shows up on our table each year, but our emphasis is definitely on giving thanks to our lovely, mighty, and holy God as we delight in the family, friends, and other blessings He has given us.

Sometimes we go through life and this happens or that happens and we don’t think much about it- we just go with the flow; but then we enter a new stage of life and suddenly realize that God has been at work over time preparing to bump us up to “the next level”! That’s what happened when we moved to China and found ourselves, that first year, many miles from “home” again, with Thanksgiving in the offing. From that first year here, we have carried on the habit of inviting folks over. It’s just always so much better to lift our eyes up and out rather than feeling sorry for ourselves and throwing a a pity party!

We have very fond and funny memories of that first celebration in China. Some of you who have been with us for a long while remember us cooking our turkey in our twelve-inch toaster oven. We whacked the legs off and fried them up on our gas stove; then stuffed the breast cavity and baked it smashed into that tiny oven! One challenge that we faced then and still face is that our ovens have a 60-minute timer so we had to rig a butter knife and duct tape doohickey that kept the timer dial from turning.

We also laugh remembering that we didn’t have nearly enough dinner plates and could not find more anywhere. So we used round cake pans for some guests, shallow serving bowls for others, and just generally did the best we could. I don’t think anyone minded! We had only been in China for two and a half months at that time, so our household was not completely outfitted. Ten years ago Western dining accouterments were difficult to find! We fondly remember putting our Thanksgiving salad in a plastic dog bowl that we were using as a serving dish! (No worries, we’ve never had a dog- the bowl was new!)

As do most of you, we have various traditions we associate with Thanksgiving. One of our favorites is that the children and I prepare for it together. I write our menu and they each choose one or two items that they want to make. Then on Tuesday and Wednesday, we turn up the praise music and pitch in to work together. Sharing the preparation has helped them to take ownership of hospitality; has taught them to cook; has made the day less work for me (especially once they got older and didn’t need continual supervision); and is a lot of fun because we are all happy in the kitchen together. My married sons have carried on this tradition and still enjoy helping their wives prepare for holiday meals.

Another thing we do is to make our cut out and decorated sugar cookies for Thanksgiving instead of Christmas. Christmas is just so busy and pressured! We find that we are more relaxed and have more fun doing this time-consuming activity before the mad rush of Christmas.  While our holiday desserts tend to run to pies and cheesecake, cut out cookies seem to move pretty fast. Even when guests are full they seem to have enough room for “just one more cookie!” I confess, I don’t get it since these are not on my top fifty favorite desserts list, but people do mention that they look forward to those cookies from one year to the next! We baked and decorated our cookies Tuesday with Jason, Christy, Caleb and Joey over for the fun.

A few years ago, I was wishing we had kept a record of the friends who had joined us for Thanksgiving over the years. I couldn’t do anything about the past but we did begin a new tradition to rectify that. At Ikea we bought a long piece of fabric that is “Thanksgiving-ish”. We put it on the serving “table” (which is really boards stuck on dressers…) along with permanent markers, asking each friend to sign their names and put the dates on the cloth. Each year we get it out, read it, and remember previous years. And because the ex-pat population is so transient in Guangzhou, the tablecloth reminds us of when this person or that one was in town.  Just yesterday Hope was ironing the cloth in preparation for our dinner and I was reading the comments friends had written on it, smiling at the reminders of those who had joined us in the past.

This year we are adding a new tradition of having everyone in attendance write something they are thankful for, which we will put in an envelope marked “2012” and store in a special container Faith decorated for the occasion. Then each year we’ll add a new envelope to the can so that we can look back from year to year and remember.

We also make decorating our house beforehand into a party. Fall is our favorite season in America but it’s not usually so pretty in Guangzhou. We have some nice days but also many icky white out type of days. So having colorful autumn things about adds zest and freshness to our lives! Most of our decorations are homemade and very simple (craft items the kids have made, coloring pages printed off the internet and embellished by Grace and Hope, fresh vegetables and fruits….), but we do have one straw wreath with orange ribbon, sunflowers, and a scarecrow that sports that traditional Thanksgiving greeting, “Willkommen” – a gift from a friend a few years ago. LOL We also use Indian corn brought with us when we moved here and ten years later is still in use!  (Twinkies are not the only things with long shelf life!) We’ve learned to keep it someplace where people aren’t tempted to pick kernels off it, since it was getting pretty ratty after the first few years. A number of years ago, Joy, Grace, and Hope made leaves using waxed paper (brought from America) with grated Crayolas melted between the layers. This year we laminated them to try to increase the life span.  (What a mess THAT made in our laminator!) We hang these on our plate glass windows and laugh about our lovely fall color against the backdrop of thick gray pollution.

One amusing quirk of our day is that years ago someone burned a DVD of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Every single year, we stick that same DVD in and run it in the background while we prepare:)

But what you’re really wondering about is the food, isn’t it?  You’re wondering if we eat ducks’ beaks, fish eyes, and cow tummies instead of turkey, huh? Well, as a matter of fact, we DON’T! I expect our menu looks much the same as yours, we just have to pay more to prepare it since many of the items are imported and work harder to get it on the table since we don’t have time saving products available.

Turkey is always on the menu. We go to the foreign food restaurant wholesale market and pick up three of those bad boys at $3 a pound! We make sweet potato soufflé starting with fresh potatoes rather than canned. Our pumpkin pies are created the old-fashioned way from real pumpkins, which we cook and puree before mixing our filling. No refrigerator case hash browns are available for making the traditional potatoes au gratin dish we enjoy, so we boil potatoes halfway, then grate them ourselves. Piecrusts are strictly from scratch – no refrigerated crusts on our shopping lists! Usually corn for corn pudding is hand cut off the cobs, but this year we found cans of creamed corn so we crossed that extra labor off the “to do list”.  Our ambrosia features pomelo, a large citrus similar to grapefruit but drier and sweeter as well as imported navel oranges. If we make green bean casserole (which we do only for guests we know particularly love it since it’s not our favorite), we start with fresh green beans which we julienne and cook lightly and we make fried onion strings ourselves from the Pioneer Woman’s recipe. Those bump green bean casserole up to a whole new level! If we hadn’t come to China we never would have known that! Probably the biggest luxury item that we buy for the day is sour cream. It is not readily available in small containers so at the foreign food street we plunk down $25 (yes, dollars, U.S. dollars) for a five-pound tub of sour cream! But that hash brown casserole is worth it- it surely is! And we have enough left over to make chicken enchiladas for Joy’s birthday on November 26.

What, besides labor saving conveniences, do we miss from American Thanksgiving celebrations? Not so very much! We do miss collard greens and butternut squash – two vegetables we can’t get here. And ham…. (We buy one ham a year and that’s at Christmas, about the only time they are available and even then for about $10 a pound! Yikes! But, it is still a holiday, right? J) But we are not deprived in any way. Though our meal may require a bit more work and cost two or three times as much as yours does, we have NOTHING to complain about! Our meal will be a sumptuous repast, a feast of the Spirit in giving thanks and of the body in receiving abundant delicious food.

We expect a smaller crowd this year than in the past, only twenty-five to thirty, some who will be here for the large dinner and others who will drop in later for leftovers and desserts. This year for the first time we will have two celebrations with a different group coming on Saturday. This has solved our dilemma of how to cook three turkeys in our two large toaster ovens! Here is this year’s menu, keeping in mind that we are not preparing every item ourselves, as some of the guests will bring dishes to share:


Stuffing (not dressing and NOT that cornbread mess some of you might call stuffing! Excuse me, but that’s just nasty, though I can still be your friend if you like it. No one is perfect! NOT trying to start a “stuffing war”, just sayin’…)

Mashed potatoes



Sweet potato soufflé

Hash brown casserole

Corn casserole

Green bean casserole

Cranberry gelatin salad

Broccoli salad


Dinner rolls (homemade, always homemade on Thanksgiving!)

Chocolate chip pumpkin muffins

Pecan pie

Pumpkin pie

Apple pie

Tollhouse pie

Cut out sugar cookies

We hope you and yours have a happy Thanksgiving. Don’t stress out; enjoy the day; make some good memories; turn off the football game for a few minutes so that you can talk about what you’re thankful for; and cherish the moments you have with loved ones.

From China with love,



7 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Traditions

  1. I enjoyed this! Sounds like your tradition make the holiday extra special no matter where you are.

    And November 26 is a really great day! It is Delaney’s birthday as well. And I’m really glad I don’t have to buy her any $25 sour cream!

    • November 26 seems to be a hot birthday for really wonderful people! We know several who share it and they’re all winners in our book. Yeah, our traditions aren’t China-centric but our Chinese New Year traditions…. :) Not sure we can compete with your Thanksgiving though- no squirrel stew. I don’t think even the foreign food street has squirrels…

  2. We will definitely miss being with you this year, especially after missing you last year while WE were in China and YOU were in the USA!! But we just had a great day with Jaime and Robert and two of the kids, Amanda and Robert Jr. Six compared to your 30, hmm… yea, definitely two extreme perspectives. But we have much to be thankful for and, who knows, maybe we’ll get to do it again one year. Glad to hear that the Henrys were able to be back in time to be there. Also like the idea of keeping thank-you notes in envelopes. Memories are definitely something to be thankful for! Miss you all! Blessings to you; thankful for your friendship!

    • We did miss you today, Dee! Thought of you numerous times. But we had a very nice day. I guess we ended up with 31 here and five take out boxes for folks who couldn’t come. Your green beans were missed, too, especially by Grace and me. We still have a living room full of “young people”. I am crashing in the bedroom before serving up hot turkey sandwiches for dinner. Love you and thankful for you!

  3. That sounds like an amazing Thanksgiving – with the emphasis on the right place of begin thankful! I think that maybe next year I should plan a trip to spend Thanksgiving in Guangzhou – and I would even bring a reasonable size tub of sour cream and a butternut squash!

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