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November 22, 2005 > Thanksgiving around the world

Thanksgiving around the world

by Tina Cuccia and Mekala Raman

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. - John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, families gather with some flying home from all over the country, braving bustling airports, large crowds and long lines to have a traditional Thanksgiving Day meal, complete with tender turkey (or a vegetarian substitute), creamy mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberries, hot rolls and pumpkin pie.

After a loosening the belt and pushing away from the table following a second piece of pumpkin pie, many of us migrate to the couch just as the meal settles to make us drowsy and to take a nap. The following day, we start our diets and get in a little exercise - running to the mall!

Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that encourages us to step back and give thanks for all we have - something often easy to forget. One of the most common symbols of Thanksgiving is the Cornucopia, also known as the horn of plenty. The Cornucopia originated in ancient Greece as a symbol of abundance. The original cornucopia was a curved goat's horn filled to the brim with fruit and grain.

Thanksgiving Day was first celebrated by the Pilgrims following a successful harvest that allowed them to continue living in America. Arriving at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, their first winter was laborious and brutal. By the following fall, 46 of the original 102 Pilgrims who sailed to the "New World" on the Mayflower had died.

With help from Native American Indians, the Pilgrim's hard work and tenacity paid off and the harvest that following fall was bountiful. They now had corn, fruits, vegetables and fish -- packed in salt -- and smoked meat cured over fires that could be stored for the winter. By then, they had built homes in the wilderness and were at peace with their Indian neighbors. Life was good. To honor their good fortune, Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by the colonists and the neighboring Native American Indians.

Today, most Thanksgiving dinners include a turkey. But back in 1621, other fowl such as ducks and geese were part of the feast. It is not known whether or not a wild turkey was included. But the term "turkey" was used by the Pilgrims to refer to any sort of wild fowl.

Another modern staple that completes almost every Thanksgiving meal is pumpkin pie. It's unlikely, however, that the Pilgrims and Indians were treated to one of America's favorite desserts. The supply of flour was scarce - no bread to sop up gravy and no flakey pastries. Boiled pumpkin is a not what contemporary Thanksgiving dinners serve and a poor replacement for pumpkin pie, it was probably served at the first feast. Early celebrants also feasted on fried bread made from ground corn.

What else was missing at the first Thanksgiving Day meal? Without domestic cattle for dairy products, no milk or butter was available. And the newly discovered potato was thought to be poisonous by many Europeans, so mashed potatoes were not part of the meal.

With plenty of food to eat, the celebration feast was more like a traditional English harvest festival than a Thanksgiving Day celebration; it lasted three days. In addition to "turkey," the Pilgrims and Indians also dined on lobster, fish, clams, venison, berries, watercress, dried fruit and plums.

The custom of an annual thanksgiving celebration held after the harvest continued in the years that followed. 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.

Throughout the world, bountiful harvests have been celebrated with a variety of thanksgiving-type ceremonies. Many ancient farmers believed their crops contained spirits, which would cause crops to grow and die. Many believed these spirits would be released when the crops were harvested and had to be destroyed or they would take revenge on the farmers who harvested them.

Thanksgiving celebrations and harvest festivals can be found around the world in every culture from ancient times to the present.


Known for worshipping many gods and goddesses, ancient Greeks 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 of seed corn, cakes, fruit and pigs were offered to Demeter. It was hoped that Demeter's gratitude would provide a good harvest.


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


Ancient Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival by honoring Min, 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. After the parade, a great feast and celebration was held including 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, who they believed lived in the corn. They feared the spirit would become angry when farmers cut down the corn.


In India, Hindus celebrate thanksgiving during the month of January. During Winter Solstice (Makara Sankranti or movement of the Sun from Cancer to Capricorn) a harvest festival is celebrated throughout India. It is known by different names in the different parts of India including Lohri, Bhogi, Bhogali Bihu, Pongal, Sankranti. Thresholds are decorated with colorful designs (rangoli) that depict chariots and stars. Celebrated as a harvest festival, a sweet dish called Pongal is cooked on this day and served 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 symbolizing the moon. Each of the cakes received a stamp of a rabbit - it was a rabbit and 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 moon cakes. 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 celebrate a harvest festival called Sukkoth. Taking place each autumn, Sukkoth has been celebrated for over 3,000 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. 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 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

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.

South America

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


In Japan, November 23 is a national holiday known in Japan as "Kinro-Kansha-no-hi," or Labor Thanksgiving Day. In 1948, November 23 was designated as the day for people in Japan to honor labor and pay respect to workers, to celebrate the year's harvest and to 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 stay home like they do on other holidays.

If you know of a special Thanksgiving celebration that takes place in a country or culture that is not featured in this article, please tell us about it so we can include it in future articles by sending an email to

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