Pinoy Pilgrims and Thanksgiving

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(The following article was published in Manila Standard Today on November 11, 2010, in their Diaspora section.)

One tradition of the American culture that is new to me is the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday.  The Philippines has no equivalent holiday like this one.

I am not saying that Filipinos are less thankful people. In fact we have several sort-of holidays, called fiestas thanking different patron saints. Each city, town, barrio, barangay and even individual street have their own fiesta. Moreover, we as a people find many reasons to celebrate by feasting and drinking. Just like people in my neighborhood where I grew up: all they need as a reason to celebrate was that it was night, and they would gather in our street corner and have their endless rounds of beer and pulutan. I am just thankful that they did not have karaoke. That will be pure torture.

The holiday of Thanksgiving here in the United States dates back to the 1600’s from the early English settlers called the Pilgrims. After surviving the treacherous journey across the Atlantic when they left their motherland England, aboard the ship Mayflower, then surviving the harsh winter in their new land, and then finally after a successful fall harvest, that they held a thanksgiving festival. Though it became a yearly tradition of the new colonies, it was not until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be held every November.

Thanksgiving celebration by the Pilgrims

Over the years the tradition of Thanksgiving have evolved to how it is celebrated now. First, it is also colloquially  known as the Turkey Day as the traditional main course of the Thanksgiving dinner is turkey. During this season everybody will be giving thanks except for the more than 45 million turkeys that will be “sacrificed” for Americans to celebrate this day. Definitely not a good day if you are a turkey. For me though, even after several years of being here in the US, I still don’t care much for the turkey and would prefer galunggong over it.

Then there are  the Thanksgiving parades. The most popular is the Macy’s Parade in New York City, with all the colorful floats, performers and music bands, and beautiful gigantic balloons. We lived in NYC for a few years but did not have a chance to see it live. Perhaps we’re just afraid of the bone chilling cold to stand outside for a long time, so we just watched it on TV in the comfort of our heated apartment. Now that we moved out of NYC, I still watch the parade on TV. If more and more Filipino migrants will be celebrating this holiday, maybe someday I will see an Ati-Atihan band (wearing parkas?) in the Thanksgiving parade.

The other big thing in this holiday tradition is the nationally televised football games during this day. Every level of football, from high school, to college to NFL games, are played during this day. Though “football” in the rest of the world means soccer, in the US, football is the American football.  I am not a fan of football,  and it took me some time to understand the game, in fact, I still don’t fully understand it. It sure has more complicated rules than tumbang preso. I though find it amusing when the players push, shove, hit and pile over each other.

Thanksgiving Postcard circa 1900 showing turkey and football

The most important thing, I think, for this holiday is the family reunion and gathering. Family members that are scattered from all over the US will travel back to their home, regardless of how many miles away they are, to gather around the table as a family for the Thanksgiving dinner. This is one of the most busiest time for travel whether by roads, trains, or air. The family reunion part gives me a twinge of longing, for as a transplant, I have no “real” home and family here in the US that I can go to, to celebrate this holiday.

During our years in the US, we celebrated Thanksgiving with other Filipino friends who just like us have no real family here. So we fellow Filipinos have become our new adopted and extended family. We will celebrate it the Pinoy way, with kare-kare, tinolang manok, and relyenong bangus as main dishes rather than turkey. Maybe we just don’t know how to cook the turkey. Then we will have leche flan, buko salad, ube and other Pinoy desserts rather than pumpkin pies. Our food is more like a barrio fiesta rather than the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but perhaps our spirit of thanksgiving is closer to the first pilgrims’. We as a group, have also left our motherland, aboard not by the Mayflower ship, but rather by Boeing 747 fleet. We survived a harsh transition into this new country and now giving thanks for our blessings.

Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

More recently, when we moved to the Midwest, we have been celebrating Thanksgiving with a certain family and it is becoming our new tradition. The head of this family is an American and he is married to a Filipina. They are very good cooks. The American husband introduced us to the real traditional American Thanksgiving cuisine. He prepared roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, bread stuffings, green bean casserole, mashed potato, yams, pomegranate gelatin and pumpkin pies. Now I can say that I have had a real American Thanksgiving dinner. Of course we still have the pansit, fried tilapia, and buko pandan.

As I sat in the Thanksgiving dinner table, I just can’t help but think to myself, here I am, in my new adopted tradition, my new adopted cuisine, my new adopted extended family, and in a new adopted country. But I am still the same Pinoy, with the same thankful heart.

I join all the Filipino pilgrims in the world as well as all my countrymen back home in giving thanks. Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Ganun din kami noong gabi ng Thanksgiving sa salo-salo ng mga Pinoy. Mga putaheng pinoy na mga ulam at mga desserts.

    Pareho din ang feeling katulad ng sabi mo…”But I am still the same Pinoy, with the same thankful heart.”

    Salamat sa istorya ng Thanksgiving.

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