Thanksgiving Traditions Around the World

The first Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863-1930, artist. Published by the Foundation Press, Inc., c1932. photomechanical print halftone, colour. Pilgrims and Natives gather to share meal. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

I am not normally a huge fan of Facebook memes, but a recent one struck a chord. I laughed aloud the first and only time I saw it then reflected on its truth. It said something like this: December should stay in its own lane and stop its unwarranted invasion of November. Since Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, I heartily agree! I love the quieter celebration and focus on family that the fourth Thursday in November brings. We in the US tend to think Thanksgiving is a solely American tradition. While we give a passing nod to our northern neighbors during their October celebration, it may come as a surprise to find that Thanksgiving celebrations occur in a far greater number of countries, 15 according to one source.

As one would think, the celebrations may share a name, but their realities can be pretty different. Rather than feature all 15, I have chosen a few that demonstrate the similarities and differences in how cultures across the world give thanks for a successful harvest. I’ll start with our close neighbor, Canada. According to a Canadian writer, Canada’s celebration differs most from that in the US for not featuring sports, shopping or parades, and for being celebrated on the second Monday in October. He says, “Put simply, Canadian Thanksgiving is just more chilled out — not unlike Canadians themselves.”[1]

Most Americans would find the food served at a Canadian Thanksgiving table to be very familiar as it includes turkey, stuffing, root vegetables, potatoes, gravy, and pies. A regional favorite, tourtiere, a pastry pie filled with potatoes, may also be on the menu. He also mentions it is believed that turkey as a holiday staple arrived in Canada with loyalists fleeing defeat after the American Revolution. They left their homes behind, but carried their traditions with them to their new country. Other sources dispute this, saying turkey was always a staple of Canadian diet since it is native to the New World. While the foods eaten may be very similar, the histories of the two celebrations are less so.

It is believed that the first Canadian Thanksgiving feast predated that celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621 by some 43 years. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “The first official, annual Thanksgiving in Canada was celebrated on 6 November 1879, though Indigenous peoples in Canada have a history of celebrating the fall harvest that predates the arrival of European settlers. Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew are credited as the first Europeans to celebrate a Thanksgiving ceremony in North America, in 1578 [in celebration of their safe arrival in the New World]. They were followed by the inhabitants of New France under Samuel de Champlain in 1606 [celebrating the return of Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt from an expedition]. The celebration featuring the uniquely North American turkey, squash and pumpkin was introduced to Nova Scotia in the 1750s and became common across Canada by the 1870s. In 1957, Thanksgiving was proclaimed an annual event to occur on the second Monday of October. It is an official statutory holiday in all provinces and territories except Prince Edward IslandNew Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.”[2]

The American and Canadian celebrations may be the best well-known, but they are not unique. Giving thanks at harvest and other times is a worldwide tradition that dates back to antiquity in some parts of the world. Perhaps the closest antecedent to our North American traditions is the British celebration, Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving, also known as Harvest Home. It is celebrated on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon (full moon closest to the autumn equinox), usually falling between September 21-23 but can extend into early October. Harvest Home was traditionally celebrated as soon as the last of the fall harvest was completed. It was a joyous event including the entire community because a successful harvest literally meant survival through the long winter. “At their most lavish the meal would brim with several meats, vegetables, puddings, tarts and ale, and would be accompanied by singing, drinking games and much reverie.”[3]

Harvest Festival at Beamish, UK
Photo inside St Peter’s Church, Osten, Germany by Gundula Ida Gäntgen

Germany, Austria, and the German speaking part of Switzerland celebrate Erntedankfest, the lesser known fall festival. It is celebrated in early October but is usually limited to one day rather than the two weeks one expects with the better known Octoberfest. Erntedankfest translates as harvest festival of thanks and is celebrated more commonly in rural communities. The daylong event includes possessions and crowning of the harvest queen followed by musical performances, dancing, feasting, and an evening worship service in the local church. A lantern possession and fireworks bring the festival to its end. Traditionally, the harvest workers filled a ram’s horn with grains and fruits creating a cornucopia. German immigrants to the New World brought this tradition with them and the image of the bountiful cornucopia became ingrained as a symbol of our celebration in the US.[4]

China celebrates the arrival of autumn with Chung Chiu, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. According to ThoughtCO., there are several legends that are associated with the Moon Festival. This may be the most recognized:

“The Moon Festival is rooted in many different myths. Legend traces the story to a hero named Hou Yi, who lived during a time when there were 10 suns in the sky. This caused people to die, so Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns and was given an elixir by the Queen of Heaven to make him immortal. But Hou Yi didn’t drink the elixir because he wanted to remain with his wife, Chang’e (pronounced Chung-err). So, he told her to watch over the potion.

One day a student of Hou Yi tried to steal the elixir from her, and Chang’e drank it to foil his plans. Afterward, ​she flew to the moon, and people have prayed to her for fortune ever since. She’s presented with a variety of food offerings during the Moon Fest, and festival-goers swear that they can spot Chang’e dancing on the moon during the festival.”[5]

With the full moon rising on the night of the festival, Chinese families gather to eat moon cakes and sing moon poems. It is also an occasion for romance where couples spend time together eating the delicious moon cakes while courting in the light of the full moon.

The origins of Barbados’ Crop Over Festival date back to the 1780’s when Barbados was the world’s largest sugar producer. For the uninitiated, cutting cane by hand was a backbreaking, labor intensive process carried out in the heavy heat and humidity of the island’s tropical interior. Is it any wonder that those who did the work were ready to celebrate when the crop was finally all in or “over?” When Barbados’ sugar industry declined, so did the festival until it was ended in the 1940’s. It was revived in the 1974 with other Barbadian cultural elements included until it has become an event that attracts visitors from around the world.

It begins with the Ceremonial Delivery of the Last Canes and the crowning of the most productive cane cutters as Festival King and Queen. There are markets selling food, beverages, arts and crafts, and musical presentations. The official festival website describes the most important feature and the festival end as follows:

“Calypso is one of the main features of the Crop Over festival. The calypsonians are organised into “tents” and these tents are sponsored by Barbados businesses. Calypsonians compete for several prizes and titles, including Party Monarch, Sweet Soca Monarch, Road March Monarch and Pic-O-De-Crop Monarch.

The finale of the festival is the Grand Kadooment! This carnival parade features large bands with members dressed in elaborate costumes to depict various themes.”[6]

The African nation of Ghana has a harvest festival tradition that is quite old. The festival website tells us this:

“The word Homowo (Homo – hunger, wo – hoot) can mean “to hoot (or jeer) at hunger” in the Ga language. The tradition of Homowo started with a period of hunger leading to famine due to failure of the seasonal rains needed by crops in the Greater Accra Region, where the Ga people predominantly dwell. When the rains returned to normal, the Ga people celebrated by creating the Homowo festival, hence its name and meaning.

Homowo is greatly celebrated in all the towns in the Ga state with celebrations climaxing in Gamashie. The celebration begins with the planting of maize, which will be used in preparing the food for the festival named Kpokpoi or Kpekple. During this period, noise making is prohibited or banned since it is believed that it disturbs the gods. The meal is eaten with Palm Nut Soup and it is also sprinkled within the town. This is normally done by traditional leaders and family heads. Celebration includes marching down roads and streets beating drums, chanting, face painting, singing and traditional dances. Even though the celebration of Homowo is a Ga tradition, many other ethnic groups are welcomed to also join in the celebration. The homowo festival of the Ga tribe is believed to have a lineage from the Jewish tribe and its ancestral tradition of the Jewish Passover feast.”[7]

However and whenever you celebrate the harvest or give thanks for the blessing you have, I wish you and yours peace and prosperity. Thanksgiving in the US is next Thursday. For my American readers, wishing you and yours a



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