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November 23, 2004 > Thanksgiving Around the World

Thanksgiving Around the World

by Mekala Raman

Every year, people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November. Families get together and have a turkey feast. Often, many families with extended families, come together to celebrate at Thanksgiving as opposed to Christmas. They are celebrating the Pilgrims' first successful harvest that allowed them to continue colonizing in America. In 1621, after a laborious and devastating first year in the New World, the Pilgrim's fall harvest was very successful and plentiful. There was corn, fruits, vegetables, along with fish which was packed in salt, and meat that was smoke cured over fires. Pilgrims had beaten the odds; they found that they had enough food to put away for the winter. They built homes in the wilderness, raised enough crops to keep them alive during the imminent, long winter, and they were at peace with their Indian neighbors. Their Governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving that was to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native American Indians.

The custom of an annually celebrated thanksgiving, held after the harvest, continued through the years. During the American Revolution (late 1770s) a day of National Thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century many other states also celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln officially appointed a national day of thanksgiving. Since then each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, designating the fourth Thursday of each November as a holiday.

Historically, mankind has been known to celebrate the bountiful harvest with thanksgiving ceremonies. Before the establishment of formal religions many ancient farmers believed that their crops contained spirits, which caused the crops to grow and die. Many believed that these spirits would be released when the crops were harvested and they had to be destroyed or they would take revenge on the farmers who harvested them. Some of the harvest festivals celebrated the defeat of these spirits. Thanksgiving celebrations and harvest festivals, therefore, can be found around the world in every culture from ancient times to the present.

The ancient Greeks worshipped many gods and goddesses. Each autumn they honored Demeter, the goddess of grains, at the festival of Thesmosphoria. On the first day of the festival married women would build leafy shelters and furnish them with couches made of plants. On the second day they fasted and on the third day a feast was held and offerings to the goddess Demeter were made - gifts of seed corn, cakes, fruit, and pigs. It was hoped that Demeter's gratitude would grant them a good harvest.

The Romans also celebrated a harvest festival called Cerelia, which honored Ceres their goddess of corn (this is also the origin of the word cereal). The festival was held each year on October 4th and offerings of the first fruits of the harvest and pigs were made to Ceres. Their celebration included music, parades, games, sports, and, of course, a thanksgiving feast.

The ancient Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival by honoring Min, their god of vegetation and fertility. The festival was held in the springtime, the Egyptians' harvest season. The festival of Min included a parade featuring the Pharaoh, or king. After the parade a great feast was held, in addition to music, dancing, and sports. When the Egyptian farmers harvested their corn, they wept and pretended to be grief-stricken. This was to deceive the spirit, which they believed lived in the corn. They feared the spirit would become angry when the farmers cut down the corn where it lived.

In India, ancient and modern Hindus celebrate thanksgiving during the month of January. At the Winter Solstice (Makara Sankranti or movement of the Sun from Cancer to Capricorn) a harvest festival is celebrated throughout India. It is called by various names in the different parts of India namely, Lohri, Bhogi, Bhogali Bihu, Pongal, Sankranti. The smell of freshly harvested grains and sugarcane, the sound of bells tinkling on the feet of cattle, the sight of brightly colored marigolds and chrysanthemums, of thresholds decorated with colorful designs (rangoli) depicting chariots and stars, the smells, sounds, and sights that herald the approach of Sankranti/ Pongal. Celebrated as a harvest festival, a sweet dish called Pongal is cooked on this day, with newly harvested rice, moong dal, and jaggery.

The ancient Chinese celebrated their harvest festival, Chung Ch'ui, with the full moon that fell on the 15th day of the eighth month. This day was considered the birthday of the moon and people baked special "moon cakes" that were round and yellow (like the moon). Each of these cakes was stamped with the picture of a rabbit - as it was a rabbit, not a man that the Chinese saw on the face of the moon. The families ate a thanksgiving meal and feasted on roasted pig, harvested fruits and the moon cakes previously mentioned. It was believed that during the three day festival, flowers would fall from the moon and those who saw them would be rewarded with good fortune.

Jewish (Hebrew) families also celebrate a harvest festival called Sukkoth. Taking place each autumn, Sukkoth has been celebrated for over 3000 years and is known by two names - Hag ha Succot - the Feast of the Tabernacles and Hag ha Asif - the Feast of Ingathering. Sukkoth begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, five days after Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Sukkoth is named for the huts (succots) that Moses and the Israelites lived in as they wandered the desert for 40 years before they reached the Promised Land. These huts were made of branches and were easy to assemble, take apart, and carry as the Israelites wandered through the desert. When celebrating Sukkoth, which lasts for eight days, the Jewish people build small huts of branches which recall the tabernacles of their ancestors. Inside the huts fruits and vegetables, including apples, grapes, corn, and pomegranates are hung. On the first two nights of Sukkoth the families eat their meals in the huts under the evening sky.

Canada, British Isles, Europe, Northern Ireland
Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the second Monday in October. Observance of the day began in 1879. In the British Isles and Europe, the harvest thanksgiving is observed in Protestant and Catholic churches with special altar decorations. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, land has been set aside to establish a Thanksgiving Square.

South America
In South America, many of the native Indian cultures contain expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving, and in modern Brazil a special public day of thanksgiving and prayer has been designated for the fourth Thursday of November every year since 1949.

In Japan, November 23rd is a national holiday known in Japan as "Kinro-Kansha-no-hi", or Labor Thanksgiving Day. In 1948, November 23rd was designated as the day for people in Japan to honor labor and pay due respect to workers, to celebrate the year's harvest, and show mutual appreciation for one another. On this day, a harvest ceremony called "Niiname-sai," which has been commemorated every year at the imperial court, is performed. During the ceremony, the Emperor dedicates that year's new rice to the gods and tastes it for the first time at the Imperial Household. Most people go out for fun with their families and friends, or just take a rest at home like on other holidays.

These are some of the ways Thanksgiving is celebrated in different countries and cultures. If you know of any special Thanksgiving celebration in a country or culture that has not been covered in this article please send an email about it to We would love to include it in the future.

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