American Thanksgiving in Denmark

Taking the good in America with the bad

Natasha vonKaenel is a student at UC Berkeley and the daughter of the owners of SN&R
Rotary International is involved in a multitude of community- and international-service projects, including the eradication of polio and offering students like Natasha the opportunity to live abroad for a year. Learn more at
If you’d like to learn more about Danish culture, a good place to start is at the official website of Denmark at

Jeg er taknemmelig for…”

Last Thanksgiving, I had a lot to be thankful for. I was in Denmark for a year on a Rotary Youth Exchange program, living with three different host families. It was the experience of a lifetime. There I was in the happiest country on Earth, sharing a uniquely American tradition with my new Danish friends and family. We had just finished devouring our roast turkey and homemade gravy. Before we took the warm apple and pumpkin pies out of the oven, I wanted to share what I was taknemmelig for.

I had been feeling overwhelmed with gratitude, and the words came naturally. After giving thanks in Danish, I turned and asked my Danish friend Sasha what she was thankful for this year. Her dark brown eyes widened. “Mig?” Me? She wasn’t prepared for this odd American tradition and was awaiting the promised pumpkin pie. But after a long pause, apprehensively, Sasha spoke.

“I am thankful for,” she began, and then she stopped. She glanced around the table and suddenly began to cry. But finally, the words came. She was thankful for her family and for the country she lived in. She was thankful for the lack of homelessness in Denmark. She was thankful for her free education and public health care. She gave a lot of thanks. And there were a lot of tears, too.

One by one, all of my friends said what they were thankful for. While they had all known that they were lucky to live in what we call a socialist country and to be taken care of by their government, they had never sat down and said it out loud. My host mom complimented America for having such a gracious tradition, and then she went to get the pies.

I sat, bewildered. This was the first time I had been praised for my American culture since I had been abroad. I was so used to apologizing—for our government, for our wars, for McDonald’s and our imperialism. For the first time in Denmark, I was proud to be an American. My Thanksgiving tradition had brought my Danish friends to tears.

Soon after, my year in Denmark was up. Though I’d gone there to learn about Danish culture, I wound up learning even more about my own culture. Americans honor hard work. We respect that someone labored to put food on the table, and we feel blessed to be eating it. It’s easy to focus on all of the flaws of American society and forget about the wonderful beauty of our country and culture.

There are inherent American values that make our country special. Our graciousness, ambition and appreciation of individualism make America what it is—good and bad. In Denmark, I saw the good and the bad of having the government take care of the people’s every need. Here at home, I see the good and the bad of “every man for himself.”

This Thanksgiving, please be grateful for what you have, but also give back to someone who may not be so blessed. Because of the way our system works, the responsibility falls on us, as good Americans, to do our part to reach out to those who are less fortunate and to offer them a hand.