The first official Thanksgiving celebrated in Lithuania was back in November 1991.
Lithuania had gained its independence from the Soviet Union and had begun the road of integration into the modern world and family of European nations. Foreign diplomats arrived each week in Vilnius to renew their diplomatic ties with the new Republic of Lithuania. The American Ambassador, Darryl Johnson, had presented his credentials to Vytautas Landsbergis and begun preparations to set up the new American Embassy in Lithuania.
The American Embassy was not officially opened until January 1992, when U.S. Vice President Quayle arrived and cut the ribbon at the embassy’s official opening ceremonmy. As an employee of the Lithuanian Parliament’s Press Office, my job was to wrangle the hundreds of journalists who covered the historic event–and believe me, they needed a lot of wrangling! Journalists can get out of control while trying to cover a story. In those days, it seemed each day presented something new for the history books.
In November of 1991, although the embassy was not yet open for business, U.S. Ambassador Daryl Johnson invited the American ex-pats in Lithuania, such as myself, for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. When we arrived, we were sent into the kitchen to work. This was not a fancy-schmancy embassy party. The embassy had not yet hired a staff and didn’t have much by way of supplies, like cooking utensils, so we all pitched in to cook in the kitchen and put together our meal–just like a typical family would.
Mr. Johnson had a turkey flown in, especially for our dinner among other traditional ingredients unavailable at the time in Lithuania. (Thanks U.S. taxpayers!) We enjoyed a hearty meal and went around the table expressing what we were grateful for. Most of us ex-pats were grateful to be in Lithuania to witness independence, and to be able to continue to work towards helping Lithuania build a new democratic nation. And we were all grateful for the turkey. After all that we went through with the revolution: Moscow’s economic blockade, food shortages, tanks in the streets, etc–we were happy for American comfort food, and plenty of it! After our meal, we were back in the kitchen doing the dishes.
The first official Thanksgiving was not a glamourous event. That came a year later. However, also a year later, in November of 1992, Lithuanians continued to have much to be grateful for: The new Lithuanian Constitution was ratified.
As an American, when I think of the constitution, the famous images of George Washington standing over a table with the American constitution comes to mind.
On November 6, 1992, on the third floor of the Parliament building where we held our press briefings, Vytautas Landsbergis, surrounded by Parliamentarians, signed the Lithuanian Constitution into force. The Constitution had received approval from Lithuanian citizens in a referendum held on October 25, 1992 (by 75% of those who voted).
I stood up against the wall among my Parliament co-workers to witness the historic event–and I couldn’t stop thinking that I was in the same room as the George Washingtons, Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Jeffersons of Lithuania. Sure, these are American mythological super heroes, and the individuals in the room that day in Vilnius were just representative of the regular men and women who happened to stand up to the Moscow Bear and lead Lithuania to freedom.
When we think of American history, we revere the famous names and thank them for our freedoms, but what about the unsung heroes? Their secretaries? Their organizers? The journalists? The unknown American soldiers who died so that Washington, Franklin and Jefferson could be idolized for their contribution to the American constitution?
Lithuanians have much to be grateful for. Each Lithuanian on the planet contributed somehow to Lithuanian independence. Whether it was Lithuanians in Vilnius standing before the tanks or serving as human shields for months around parliament and other buildings. Or it was emigres maintaining Lithuanian traditions raising new generations who would help with independence efforts. Or it was leaders like Landsbergis (who might have been stubborn at times) who had the “right-stuff” to deal with Moscow and lead Lithuania to freedom. Or it was emigres sending money to Sajudis to support the cause. Or it was Lithuanians participating in demonstrations around the world.
We all can be grateful because we all made it happen. And to those who may have missed out on those events of the past, there is still time to support Lithuania.
Show gratitude in preserving the traditions and learning your history.