Thanksgiving is around the corner, which for some might conjure up images of backyard football, a gravy boat filled to the brim and guest bedrooms prepped with fresh linens for visiting relatives. For many, Thanksgiving means home.
It means family.
For some Cincinnati residents, returning home for the holidays is not so simple. From young professionals to international students, those unable to see their relatives are reimagining the turkey holiday, but with friends.
Thus comes the rise of Friendsgiving, or a meal shared with friends either on or near the official Thanksgiving holiday, which lands Nov. 23 this year.
‘We make families out of these friends we’ve made here’
Palak Shah, a 26-year-old student from Mumbai, India, who is pursuing her doctorate in education from the University of Cincinnati, is going into her third Thanksgiving away from home.
She’s determined to make the most of it.
Before moving to Cincinnati in 2021, Shah’s impressions of the United States and American holidays were based on movies.
“Knowing it and living it are two different things,” she said.
Her first year here, Shah was surprised to find many stores closed during Thanksgiving break. Once turkey day rolled around, her feelings of isolation worsened.
“I thought I would be okay, I’d just be by myself … but it was actually much worse than that,” she said. “I didn’t go anywhere and had no place to go to.”
Shah decided to turn things around the following year and host her own Friendsgiving for her fellow doctorate students and other international students. She even curated a 50% American, 50% non-American menu, incorporating Mexican, Chinese, Indian and other ethnic dishes for a more culturally diverse Thanksgiving feast.
She plans to host another Friendsgiving this year.
“Friendsgiving is just like Thanksgiving. But typically Thanksgiving would be with family, and since we don’t have families here, we make families out of these friends we’ve made here. I think it’s as simple as that,” Shah said.
‘In a way it’s good, in a way it’s haunting’
“In a way it’s good, in a way it’s haunting,” 24-year-old UC graduate student Lakshmi Sahithi Kolasani said about her school’s campus clearing out during holiday breaks.
Kolasani is an international student in UC’s engineering in computer science master’s program. She’s from Guntur, India, and the first person in her family to venture outside of the country for school. Kolasani moved to Cincinnati this August not knowing anyone in the city.
The homesickness gets worse during this time of year, she says, when India’s season of festivals kicks off with holidays that include Diwali, or the festival of lights, which took place Nov. 12.
UC hosts events, such as Diwali night, at the dorms to honor Indian celebrations. Still, Kolasani says it’s difficult not celebrating the holidays with her friends and family.
“Thankfully here (at UC) there are a good number of Indian students to not miss out on a lot, but at the end of the day, (Indian holidays here are) not the same,” she said.
The homesickness also gets compounded by UC pausing classes for Thanksgiving break.
“Homesickness gets worse over breaks, because you don’t have time to be busy. (And you’re) consumed with thoughts of remembering home, people, friends, life you left behind.”
Kolasani, however, is determined to make the most of her school’s break, using the time to explore Cincinnati with her other international friends. Plus, learning about Thanksgiving and other American holidays is sort of thrilling, she says.
“At our home, we are only used to the same kind of culture from our childhood … we only know one type of culture,” Kolasani said. “So here when we see other things going on, it kind of excites us … we get intrigued with all the new stuff.”
‘I want people to feel loved’
Young professional Brianna Agner, 27, was first away for the holidays in 2020. She didn’t want to risk going home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
That year and the year after, Agner decided it was safest to host a small Friendsgiving with her roommate in place of going home for turkey day.
She now goes home to celebrate the holiday with her family in Ada, Ohio, but still hosts her Friendsgiving, an event that has evolved quite a bit since her small gathering in 2020.
After joining a Cincinnati-based LGBTQ+ athletic league, Hot Mess Sports, in 2022, Agner found a new group of friends who, because of their LGBTQ+ identity, did not feel welcome at home for the holidays.
“I’ve never come across people who weren’t going home because they weren’t accepted by their family. So that’s been a big shift for me, the empathy of wanting to throw (a Friendsgiving) not just because I want to have my friends over, but because I want people to feel loved and have a place to share their sugar cookie recipe,” Agner said.
“I really want people to have a place they can feel at home,” she added.
Agner, who works in higher education, says establishing meaningful friendships in your 20s can be hard. Oftentimes, young professionals can feel really lost after college, she says. So she’s happy to provide a space for the people in her life to build those friendships.
This year, Agner started planning the event in June and expected 40-45 people at the celebration. She even rented out a clubroom with Towne Properties to host all her guests.
“It’s nice to have a place where people can find their chosen family, maybe develop new friendships and really great memories together,” she said. “Eating food together is so simple and it’s so easy to make friends that way.”