It was the third butcher I called, with less than a week to spare. My regular local, Oliver Kajtna, knew a guy who could get me a turkey, but he need more than a week’s notice. I was relieved when I called Rešet, and they said, “Of course we can get you a whole turkey. Is it Thanksgiving?” Indeed it was, and my parents would be visiting. We were determined to make a traditional American Thanksgiving meal, and invite my wife’s Slovene family to join us, but the key ingredients were proving elusive. Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, and the most American of all. There is no religion whatsoever: you just gather with your family and eat a big meal, giving thanks for all the good things in life. Non-denominational, it is beloved of, and welcoming to, every cultural group in the US. It celebrates the survival of a harsh winter by some of the earliest European settlers of North America, who would have starved had not the local Native American population (careful not to call them Indians, as it is considered politically incorrect!) helped them along. The fact that these white European settlers went on to chase the natives out of their homelands is a little historical detail that most celebrants of Thanksgiving choose to ignore. Focus on the good stuff.
And the good stuff comes in the form of traditional food: a giant roast turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato, pumpkin or pecan pie. It is a celebration of ingredients that are indigenous to North America: there were no turkeys, no cranberries, no sweet potatoes in Europe until after the “discovery” of America. Turns out there are not many cranberries or turkeys here to this day.
We couldn’t find any fresh or frozen cranberries, only dried. So we ended up with frozen lingonberries, which are translated as brusnice but are actually a different, though very similar, fruit. But lingonberry sauce would do. Pecans proved elusive, so instead of pecan pie, we settled for walnut. And then there’s the turkey.
When my father and I drove to the butcher to pick it up, there was a plastic bag sitting on the counter. But it was so small, I asked “Where’s the turkey?” “In the bag,” came the friendly reply. American turkeys must be on steroids: they are regularly over ten kilos, enough for a gathering of twelve hungry guests. This turkey was 3.2 kilos. I’ve seen much larger chickens. We couldn’t believe it—we’d never seen a turkey so small. The butcher apologetically said that the largest they can get are 4-5 kilos. We needed a backup plan. I called my mother-in-law, who makes the world’s best fila, and she agreed to make a second meat course, so we wouldn’t go hungry. It would truly be a Slovene-American Thanksgiving.
Holidays in Slovenia are not all that different from what I’m used to back home thanks, unfortunately, to the colonialist quality to the American capitalist tradition. Christmas here is like Christmas there, aside from the gifts being opened on Christmas Eve, whereas Americans wait until Christmas morning to eagerly scamper downstairs to dive into the jewel-colored wrapped gifts beneath the tree. Americans wrap all their gifts—I’d never seen a darilna vrecka before moving here, so there will inevitably be big piles of shredded wrapping paper to wade through, before enjoying a pancake breakfast. The American thick, fluffy kind with maple syrup, as opposed to the thin, European kind with marmalade (we call those crepes).
I am quite fascinated by the dynamic of having Miklavz and Dedek Mraz and Bozicek. With two young daughters, my wife and I have to figure out which mythology to teach, because it can get confusing. All of them look similar, and in English, Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas are the same person, and neither has anything to do with religion, alas. Relatively few American children associate Christmas with the birth of Jesus, as Santa is the main hero of the day (and the appearance of Santa Claus, with a white beard and red pajamas, was invented for a Coca-Cola advertisement). It doesn’t make sense to give gifts for Miklavz and on Bozic, so close together, so we’ll probably go with only one of the two, unless we can convince our kids that they are the same person, just in different outfits. Dedek Mraz, whose name sounds like a funk musician from the 70s (“Grandaddy Cool”), is a Russian Communist invention, so he is, by default, less fun than the other two. Whoever invented parkelji must have a sadistic streak—or be a genius, because they are sufficiently scary to trick children into behaving.
My favorite Slovene holiday is actually November 1. This doesn’t exist back home (we have Halloween the night before only, which I miss, I must say). Though it will sound weird, I love walking through graveyards at night on November 1. I’d never seen the candy-colored grave candles before moving here, and they are astonishingly beautiful. Before I realized what they were, I had bought some for my Mom as a gift (she has a purple one in our living room), and I used them to decorate my first apartment here (imagine what my wife thought, when she came over early in our relationship and I had illuminated grave candles adding romantic atmosphere to the room). Wandering through Zale in Ljubljana on November 1, in complete darkness aside from these colored candles that seem to float in the oceanic night, is a beautiful thing. But most beautiful of all is the fact that Slovenes do not forget and abandon their loved ones after they die. They visit their graves, at least once a year. Americans bury their dead and almost never visit, at least not after the initial period of mourning. That is a shame. Family tradition, caring and love should go on, even when this life is over. That’s more of what holidays are about, with or without the presents.
For more, check out the best-selling book, Slovenology: Living and Traveling in the World's Best Country