Thanksgiving Around the World
Growing up in the United States, you may have learned that Thanksgiving is an entirely American tradition celebrating the 1621 feast between the Wampanoag Indian tribe and the pilgrims who came to the “new world” on the Mayflower. America’s first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but it didn’t become the yearly commemoration it is now until President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday during the Civil War.* More than 150 years later, we still gather together with family and/or friends on the fourth Thursday of November to give thanks, eat more than our fair share of food, watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football, and prepare for a Black Friday that seems to start earlier and earlier every year.
Thanksgiving in this context is, in fact, a purely American holiday. However, the underlying themes of this tradition—giving thanks for the bountiful harvest and a celebration of family—are found in many celebrations around the world. Here’s a brief look at just a few:
Held on the second Monday in October, Canada has its own Thanksgiving, and while it shares some similarities to its American counterpart, the most interesting difference might be one of the reasons Canada even celebrated Thanksgiving in the early days of the official holiday: they were thankful they weren’t the United States! Now, the shade isn’t as bad as it sounds. Though the country has its own mythology and long history surrounding the holiday, it was Protestant church leaders who successfully established a day of giving thanks to God in 1859. The idea was to set aside a day where Canadians would go to church and thank God for all that they and their country had received that year. Because the United States would soon be mired in the Civil War, they were also grateful to be “spared the bloodshed” of their neighbors to the South.
Over time, Canadian Thanksgiving developed into a similar, though “quieter” tradition. A day for giving thanks and spending time with friends and family, the yearly feast yields similar culinary fare including turkey, fall vegetables, and, of course, pumpkin pie.
The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as Chung Ch’ui, is one of the most important yearly festivals in China, after the Chinese New Year. As its name suggests, the festival is held in autumn on the 15th day of the eighth month in the traditional lunar calendar. Originating thousands of years ago during the Zhou Dynasty (1066 BC to 221 BC), Chung Ch’ui celebrates the harvest and the tradition of worshipping the full moon. The full moon is an important element in Chinese culture symbolizing unity, and so the Mid-Autumn Festival carries the common Thanksgiving theme of spending time with family and enjoying a traditional meal. Though customs vary across ethnicities, some of the major traditions include eating special moon cakes; observing, celebrating, and worshipping the full moon; making and lighting paper lanterns; and participating in traditional dragon dances.
Liberia’s Thanksgiving actually has its roots in American Thanksgiving, and many people may not know why (I didn’t). The West African nation of Liberia has a fascinating history. It was “founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves” in 1822 with the support of then-President James Monroe. And though descendants of this group make up a statistically small portion of the country’s current population, some American traditions have become ingrained in the nation’s identity.
Celebrated on the first Thursday of November, Liberia’s Thanksgiving is a more religious holiday that includes visiting the church and giving thanks to God. Liberians also express gratitude for the founding of their nation, which allowed for original inhabitants to escape the slavery and injustice of America and live freely. While a similar feast to that of the United States is prepared, chicken is usually the centerpiece and regional spices and culinary specialties are included to make it a truly Liberian meal. In addition to worship and food, Liberian Thanksgiving is a jovial observance with concerts and dancing in celebration of their freedom and blessings.
Erntedankfest (“Harvest thanks festival”) is Germany’s own version of Thanksgiving. Similar to harvest festivals held around the world, this celebration can be traced back thousands of years and is usually observed in September or October depending on the region. Germany’s tradition has its roots in the church and is a very religious festival consisting of church services, processions, and decorated altars as well as music and dance. Like American Thanksgiving, Erntedankfest is ultimately about giving thanks for the food received throughout the year and gathering together. And even though Erntedankfest existed long before the American holiday, the Germans have borrowed from the latter when it comes to dinner—turkey, as well as many American side dishes, have become popular staples of the Erntedankfest feast.
Norfolk Island (Australian Territory)
The American-version of Thanksgiving has actually extended its reach halfway around the world and across the Pacific to the tiny Norfolk Island near Australia. The holiday caught on after an American trader, Isaac Robinson, settled there in the 1890s. Because the island was frequented by American whaling ships, Robinson had the idea to decorate the All Saints Church in honor of Thanksgiving with local produce to attract American whalers. Robinson died the next year, but the tradition was already a crowd pleaser. More than 130 years later, the locals of the island still gather at the church to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Wednesday of November. As Robinson did that first year, locals decorate the church for the holiday and, later, sell the produce used to raise money for its preservation. American hymns and a “traditional fare of cold pork and chicken, pilhis, banana,” with a side of pumpkin pie merge cultures and make this American tradition a Norfolk Island celebration.
This is just an introductory look at some of the other similar traditions we share with our neighbors. With these and any other celebrations around the world, the history and culture behind the traditions can be fascinating and complicated. You never know what you may find when you dig deeper.
*If you want to learn the real story behind American Thanksgiving, check out this great article from National Geographic.