Our annual day of gratitude is here, but if you have heritage from one of these countries, you may have celebrated your Thanksgiving already.
When you think of the word “Thanksgiving,” you may conjure up imagery of steam wafting off a freshly roasted turkey, the rich colors of the spread of side dishes, and for some, eager preparation for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday deals. Though exorbitant consumerism may be a strange way to follow up a holiday meant to express gratitude for the abundance you’ve already been blessed with, there’s no detracting from how iconic of a holiday Thanksgiving is between its foodie-friendly fare and rich American lore that led to its inception.
That said, America is a pretty young nation and certainly isn’t the first to celebrate a fall holiday that honors the harvest. For many thousands of years around the world, people have worshiped the harvest or acknowledged gratitude toward their ancestors and deities alike. In honor of our own Turkey day, let’s learn a bit about how “Thanksgiving” is celebrated worldwide.
The celebration for harvest season in Japan kicks off on November 23 and is known as either Kinrō Kansha no Hi or Niiname-sai. What began as a rice harvest ceremony for the ancient Shinto culture is now “Labor Thanksgiving Day,” which instead observes the labor industry and community causes like human rights or the environment. Japan actually set the date during the Meiji Era (late 1800s and early 1900s), but their modern tradition of celebrating Japan’s workers began after World War II.
One of Japan’s most famous autumnal fireworks festivals, the Ebisu-ko Fireworks Festival, coincides with Labor Thanksgiving Day. Finally, while our American Thanksgiving includes a large feast, Japan’s looks more like events led by labor organizations or school kids writing thank-you letters to first responders and municipal workers.
Just like how we’re close in physical proximity, America and Canada are also close in how we celebrate Thanksgiving. They even call it Thanksgiving (though in French-speaking Quebec it’s known as “Action de Grâce”), but it just happens to fall on a different date. Whereas we observe Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November, Canadians celebrate it on the second Monday in October.
Canadians on Thanksgiving feast on many of the same foods as well like a large turkey (or ham), mashed potatoes, corn, pumpkin pie, and of course, the pièce de résistance, which Canada is understandably famous for – gravy. The Canadian Football League actually has an annual Thanksgiving Day Classic, which mirrors our own NFL games.
That said, the reason why Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving is a bit different from Americans, with their first feast dating nearly half a century before ours. Ours was in 1621, when the Wampanoag tribe shared a feast with Pilgrims, while Canada’s feast was in celebration after Arthur Frobisher, the British explorer who ventured about the Northwest Passage, returned from his journey with his crew.
The African nation of Liberia was formed as a colony to bring freed American slaves back to Africa in the 19th century, so it should come as no surprise that Liberians celebrate their own Thanksgiving as well. In fact, they’re the only African country that has an official Thanksgiving celebration! Liberia’s formation and declaration of independence in 1847 actually made it the first democratic republic on the African continent.
In Liberia, Thanksgiving falls on the first Thursday of November and includes an abundant feast. Jollof rice, cassava, chicken, and mashed cassava are some of the staple components of the Liberian Thanksgiving meal. Other aspects of the Liberian Thanksgiving celebration include gathering at a Baptist church for a service and an auction of the fresh fruit harvested that season.
4. Germany, Switzerland, and Austria
One European harvest festival that carries over across a couple of countries is Erntedank, which is celebrated in German-speaking countries like Austria, Switzerland, and of course, Germany. Erntedankfest, or the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival, is observed in either September or October.
For the Swiss, it takes place in mid-September. For Germany, it’s on the first Sunday of October, and although it was given that official date by the German Catholic Church in 1972, the date is more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule like our own.
Erntedankfest looks more like a country fair than our intimate family gatherings, and celebrants attend parades, live music venues, and church services. The parade procession even has a harvest queen known as the Erntekönigin, who wears a crown called the Erntekrone. Some celebrations even have a torch parade known as the Laternenumzug and include fireworks.
Turkey has gotten more popular in these countries, but goose is a more traditional dish for special occasions like Erntedank. Either way, this Germanic Thanksgiving is much more like a festival than the American family get-together and feast that we’re used to seeing.
Brazil’s harvest festival takes place on the fourth Thursday of November and is called Dia de Ação de Graças in Portuguese. Note the similar dates? Well, it’s no coincidence. Back in the mid-20th century, a Brazilian ambassador came home from America feeling inspired by our country’s Thanksgiving Day celebration (he attended one at St. Patrick’s Cathedral) and suggested a Brazilian version to then-president Gaspar Dutra.
In Brazil, partaking in Christian rituals is of utmost importance on Dia de Ação de Graças. People attend Mass, offer prayers and their thanks to God, and celebrate their blessings. Friends and families get together for large celebrations and decorate their houses in harvest themes. Like our Thanksgiving, Dia de Ação de Graças includes a large feast that includes familiar favorites like turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and corn stuffing, but also includes regional differences like jaboticaba fruit sauce instead of cranberry sauce and chile pork crackling.
Finally, in Brazil, there are colorful carnivals to show gratitude for God’s bounteous harvest and blessings.
Though the Brits don’t celebrate a one-for-one version of Thanksgiving, their Harvest Festival has been a staple in British culture since pagan times. Near the Sunday of the Harvest Moon in September, the successful harvest of fruit and food is celebrated through decoration, prayer in churches, and singing. This is not a national holiday, but many schools and churches observe the harvest in their own ways. One fascinating tradition is the creation of corn dollies, a multi-millennia custom made from the final sheaf cut of corn. In folklore, the Corn Spirit is said to be reborn in these braided dolls and is meant to be kept until the next year’s harvest to ensure good crops.
Back in 1974, Grenada sought independence from the United Kingdom, but once achieved, a socialist dictator known as Maurice Bishop led a coup against the first Prime Minister of Grenada, overthrowing the new government. President Ronald Reagan stepped in and sent American troops to restore democracy during Operation Urgent Fury, and ever since then, the people of Grenada celebrate their freedom during this unique Thanksgiving day. Though there may not be turkey and stuffing, since it’s a public holiday, many Grenadians choose to host beach cook-outs with their families and friends on their Thanksgiving day.
8. The Netherlands
Many of the first settlers to come over on the Mayflower from Europe spent a fair bit of time in the Dutch town of Leiden on the front end of their journey. These religious separatists, frustrated with how King James and the Church of England were leading England in the 1600s, were fined, imprisoned, and some even executed for rebelling. Alas, they fled town and went from Amsterdam to Leiden and then to America.
In Leiden, the locals allowed the travelers to freely worship for the years they lived and worked there. During that time, Leiden had an annual celebration that honored when they broke Spain’s stronghold on their city in 1574. Some say that this annual celebration actually influenced our Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving, but there’s little evidence to prove it. Either way, the Dutch town of Leiden actually observes “Thanksgiving” as a way to commemorate how the Pilgrims stayed in their city and persevered despite challenges. This looks less like a feast and more like church services on the fourth Thursday of November paired with cookies and coffee.
In Vietnam, their Mid-Autumn Festival is known as Tết Trung Thu, or the Children’s Festival. It’s called the Children’s Festival because of its focus on youth worshiping both ancestors and the moon. In Vietnamese culture, the full moon symbolizes prosperity, long life, and fullness. This is why you’ll see plenty of moon cakes and other round foods served during the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as Vietnamese crepes or steamed buns.
Tết Trung Thu takes place during October – the eighth lunar month – and is celebrated with ample parades down city streets where you can see lion dances, hear traditional songs, and view colorful lanterns being marched down the street by children.
Fan of yams? Ghanans from the Volta Region hold their own annual Thanksgiving-style celebration called Asogli Te Za, or the Asagoli Yam Festival. This festival takes place throughout the entire month of September and honors a bountiful harvest. Celebrators praise their gods and ancestors for the harvest of yams (among other things) and culture that they have cultivated and passed along.
During the whole month, funerals are actually not allowed to take place. In America, we certainly appreciate our sweet potatoes and yams during Thanksgiving, but if you were celebrating the Ghanan autumnal holiday, you wouldn’t be able to cook or taste your own yams until you’ve sprinkled some at shrines to honor your gods and family.
11. South Korea
Another country that celebrates bountiful harvests in September is South Korea. During Chuseok, Koreans hold family gatherings to share meals, play games, and most importantly, express their gratitude for the ancestors who came before them. Memorial services for deceased family members are a staple of Chuseok to honor them year after year.
During the gatherings, people will clear weeds from the graves of their ancestors and then join together for a big feast. You won’t find turkey or stuffing at the dinner table, however, as traditional Korean dishes such as half-moon steamed rice cakes, seafood and vegetable pancakes, japchae, and braised short ribs are some of the most popular Chuseok fare.
As you can see, the idea of autumnal holidays is no novel concept and instead takes many unique forms depending on the country’s spirituality or political history. Let’s all relish in the unique ways our cultures share gratitude, remember why we celebrate our holiday in the first place, and spend this important time with our loved ones as we near the end of the year. Happy Thanksgiving!
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