Did you know Thanksgiving is in fact celebrated across the world by many cultures through many different rituals? Here’s how other countries enjoy this (almost) universal holiday.
It’s amazing how many features are shared among otherwise different countries and cultures. Having burying rituals, art making, or religious observance are a few items on a vast list of examples. When it comes to festivities, there’s few instances that better illustrate this point than Thanksgiving. Several cultures hold a ritual to express gratitude for a successful and bountiful harvest, and that’s ultimately how all thanksgiving traditions originate—including the American version (even if its agricultural roots have been buried by centuries of social development).
And it’s not too surprising that so many civilizations have celebrated a kind of thanksgiving in one way or another. Harvesting has played a pivotal role throughout history for the advancement of humanity—to the point that it’s safe to say that, without agriculture, we would not be where we are now. And there was a time when no nation could take food for granted, so people celebrated every year when their crops and hard work reaped rewards. This applauding consolidated over time into stable traditions across vastly different cultures. With that in mind, here are some examples of how other countries enjoy Thanksgiving.
Every year in May, Malaysians celebrate a festival from the Kadazan people (an ethnic group indigenous to the state of Sabah) called Kaamatan, or the harvest festival. The Kadazan people believe that rice is a central gift from the Creator, an extension of his own blood, meant to save his people from starvation. In their mythology, the Creator’s daughter, Huminodun, a being of supreme beauty, sacrificed herself so that harvest would be plentiful for the community, her body having been buried across the land to make it fertile. It is rice, the Kadazans believe, which allows life on Earth—so they celebrate accordingly. On the final days of the festival a public holiday takes place which culminates with the crowning of the Unduk Ngadau, the festival’s beauty queen, following a traditional beauty pageant in honor of Huminodun’s sacrifice.
North and South Korea celebrate their harvest festival, known as Chuseok (“Autumn eve”), on the 15th of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, under a full moon. To give thanks for a good harvest, Koreans honor and commemorate their roots by visiting their ancestral hometowns and sharing a feast filled with traditional dishes.
The Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival in China occurs around the same time as Korea’s Chuseok festivities. Celebrated under a bright full-moon as well, this tradition is also known as the Moon Festival, as it centers around worshiping and observing the wondrous celestial body. The festival has a three-way meaning, honoring three fundamental concepts: gathering, thanksgiving, and praying. The first concept, gathering, relates to the harvesting of the crops and the coming together of family and friends. This gathering is followed by the act of giving thanks for the harvest itself, as well as for family reunions. Finally, praying is about expressing good thoughts and wishes for the future.
Kinrō Kansha no Hi, or Labor Thanksgiving Day, is an official holiday celebrated every November 23 in Japan. Though today it’s meant to commemorate and give thanks for labor, production, hard work, and community involvement, it derived from the ancient harvest festival called Niiname-sai, which was dedicated to give thanks for the crops of the previous year and to pray for a good next harvest.
Centuries ago, Ghana’s population suffered a devastating period of famine that is commemorated to this day during the festival of Homowo. The name (from Homo, “hunger”, and wo, “jeer”) can be taken to mean “jeering at hunger” in the language of the Ga people. There is also the similar Asgoli Yam Festival, celebrated every day during September by the people of Asogli in Ghana to give thanks for the cultivation of yam.
(Photo by Benson Ibeabuchi)
The Exodus, that 40-year wandering from Egypt through the desert, in search of the Promised Land, is arguably one of the most captivating stories found in the Bible—even for the non-religious. Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, is a biblical Jewish holiday that commemorates this legendary event, but the festival itself is also related to a more basic agricultural origin. In the Book of Exodus there is mention of a special gathering, the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end, which marks the final stage of harvest-time and the agricultural year in the Land of Israel. The term Sukkot, meaning tabernacle, refers to the fragile dwellings covered with plant materials such as palm leaves, in which ancient famers lived during the period of harvesting.
During January, the whole of India joins to celebrate a series of regional festivals associated with the God of the Sun and the harvest season. Pongal, for example, is a four-day celebration of central importance to the Tamil people wherever they happen to live, and it’s dedicated to give thanks to the Sun God for a successful crop. Its origins may be as old as a thousand years, and each of its four days hold special meaning and rites. The first day, called Bhogi, is about getting rid of the old and celebrating the new. Worn possessions are discarded, houses are deeply cleaned, and new fruit and flowers are collected. The second day, Thai Pongal, is the main event. Rice is boiled and offered to the Sun God. Mattu Pongal, the third day, is dedicated to the appreciation of cattle, specifically cows, and their roles as a source for life and sustenance. Finally, the fourth day, Kaanum Pongal, marks the end of the festival and families gather and pay each other tribute.
In the 19th century, a small region in the African west coast was settled by the American Colonization Society (ACS) as a haven for freed slaves. The members of ACS believed black people would have a better chance and quality of life in Africa rather than in America (where they would face discrimination and the denial of civil rights). The organization assisted the resettlement of thousand of former slaves, and in 1847 Liberia declared its independence. Having traveled from the U.S., many Liberians, most of them Christians, brought with them a version of the American Thanksgiving. Eventually, Liberian Thanksgiving grew to include distinctive concerts and dances.
Every first Sunday of October, the Germans gather to celebrate Erntedankfest, or “Thanksgiving Day” (more literally, the Festival to Give Thanks for the Harvest). It is mostly a religious event dedicated to express gratitude for having food on the table, reflected by a feast whose menu features several kinds of birds—including, but not limited to, turkey! The celebrations include wearing a harvest crown made of flowers, fruit and grains, blessing woven baskets filled with food and distributing it to the poor, as well as lantern parades in the evenings.
Given their shared European roots, it is unsurprising that the Canadian Thanksgiving also shares a common origin with the American one, at least in the sense of carrying over similar harvesting-related rituals of gratitude. Initially celebrated on November 6 after English explorer Martin Frobisher gave thanks for the safety of his fleet, the festival was later moved by the Canadian Parliament to be held every second Monday of October to give thanks to God for blessing Canada with a bountiful harvest.
Many thanksgiving traditions have probably been lost in the depths of history, but the those that remain speak volumes as to how all humans communities share similar cultural tendencies. It's always worth noting how we fit together, rather than focus on how we drift apart. Sure, these traditions are different from each other in important respects, but they also signal common ground. On the whole, that's something we can celebrate as well.
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