To all our American friends, clients and readers a very Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to you all!

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Thanksgiving this year: as an outsider looking in.

My awareness and experiences of Thanksgiving

I’m much more aware of Thanksgiving than most of my fellow New Zealanders are for a number of reasons. Since so many of our clients are American, we’re always in tune with stateside timezones, holidays, celebrations and seasons, even though only a few of them line up with ours. I’ve lived, vacationed and travelled extensively through the US and Canada (Hawaii being almost my second home). I have many friends there whom I miss.

Through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, e-newsletters for stores, banner ads and website decorations, it’s hard to avoid knowing what’s the latest celebration in the US too.

I am also fortunate to have a brother-in-law who is Canadian (yes, I know they celebrate Thanksgiving early) so we have been celebrating a Thanksgiving meal together here in New Zealand in a small way (relatively speaking) in recent years. I celebrated Thanksgiving once in Canada. Even though it was over twenty years ago now, I still remember being overwhelmed by the lengths of the kindness and generosity of people who my family did not know well but welcomed us into their home to be a part of their family for the celebration.

Despite all this awareness, I’ve never been a part of an American Thanksgiving, and I don’t know how it really feels to be an American experiencing it with their family. It’s something I’d really like to, but it’s not a part of our culture, our history and our experience.

I hear the lengths people go to to be with family for the holiday, and I wonder things like: how many people sit around the table together? How far does the family extend? Do they really talk about things they’re thankful for in a meaningful way or is it more symbolism and decorations? What are real experiences of Thanksgiving like? (Not the Pinterest photos, please.) How would an American feel not to be with family at Thanksgiving? How does Thanksgiving work for people who aren’t close to their families? Is Thanksgiving still religious in basis for most people?

Here in New Zealand, Thanksgiving is not celebrated, nor a part of our culture or calendar. It’s not a part of store marketing.

Why Thanksgiving doesn’t make sense in New Zealand

There’s parts of the Thanksgiving celebration which simply don’t make sense in the Southern Hemisphere where summer is about to officially start. Hot heavy meals and drinks on a warm day? Harvest time when plants have just recently been planted? Pumpkin as part of dessert instead of as a roasted savory vegetable? (Further, pumpkin in a can?!)

I could say the same about other celebrations though: it’s completely the wrong time of year for:

  • Halloween pumpkin carving
  • Anything to do with snow at Christmas (e.g. snowglobes, snowmen, Jingle Bells and plenty of other songs, Christmas stockings etc etc), it’s hard to enjoy Christmas lights when it stays light outside until late; a heavy cooked meal on a hot day is also strange.
  • Baby rabbits and eggs at Easter

Why have some celebrations such as Halloween crept more into New Zealand culture in the past 20 or so years, but not others like Thanksgiving?

New Zealand’s culture (and government) prides itself on being very secular. Introducing a celebration which is about giving thanks to God (at its root) would, I expect, cause much debate on that basis alone. Let alone the cynicism of more commercialism to follow if Black Friday/Cyber Monday were also to sneak into our culture. (These also are non-existent here currently).

Why Thanksgiving could make sense in New Zealand

Does it change a society’s values and cultures to have a time set apart each year to get together and choose to be grateful and give thanks? Research* would indicate that there’s potentially immense value in this, with studies finding:

  • Gratitude having one of the strongest links with mental health of any character traits
  • Grateful people are more likely to have higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress and depression
  • Grateful people cope better with a life transition
  • Gratefulness improves a person’s altruistic tendencies
  • Gratefulness is correlated with empathy, generosity, and helpfulness
  • Gratitude is correlated with increased wellbeing not only for the individual but for all people involved

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the OECD** and in any 12-month period, more than 20% of people in New Zealand are likely to experience some form of mental illness; 47% of New Zealanders are likely to experience a form of mental illness at some point in their lives.*** Would it be completely insensitive to wonder if celebrating Thanksgiving could make any tiny change in those figures?

On a less serious note, I always return from the US thinking that we need to celebrate more in New Zealand. More decorations, more giving, more parties, more traditions, more laughter, more reasons to get together with loved ones. Thanksgiving could be a wonderful new (yet old) tradition. We have plenty to be thankful for in our country, and so often we only really get reminded of it by tourists or when we leave its shores to travel.

One thing we’ve consistently been trying hard to instill all year in our two little boys is about being thankful. It’s too easy to get caught up in things and not momentarily pause and be grateful for things or people in our lives. I want to express more “thank yous” in written form over the coming year to our clients, friends and family.

But just for now: a very big thank you to you for reading these thoughts on Thanksgiving from an outsider – I wish I could have been more in your Thanksgiving celebrations!

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