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As family and friends gather every fourth Thursday in November (many of them virtually in 2020) over meticulously planned turkey dinners, the true purpose of the holiday is often forgotten. The original 1621 meal in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is believed to have set the precedent for the American tradition, was to celebrate a successful harvest. In fact, around the world, many cultures set aside days to show their appreciation for the crops that Mother Earth provides.
While some countries began their traditions based on American Thanksgiving, others have long had their own holidays to give thanks, ranging from church services to all-night-long parties. Here’s how other nations around the world show gratefulness. Maybe they’ll inspire you to create new Thanksgiving traditions of your own!
Canadian Thanksgiving, Canada
From a distance, Thanksgiving Day in Canada looks much like the American holiday with family dinners centered around a large, roasted turkey, but the timing is pronouncedly different. After all, the first Canadian Thanksgiving came 43 years before the American tradition is believed to have started, when explorer Martin Frobisher sailed from England to Canada in 1578 and celebrated his successful journey with a meal of salted beef and mushy peas.
Early on, the tradition was rooted in religion to thank God or appreciate the bountiful harvests as God’s work. While the date has moved around a bit, Canadians now give thanks on the second Monday of October (celebrated as Columbus or Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the U.S.) when the harvests end before the cold winter begins. But Canadian Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated nationwide. Three Canadian provinces — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island — don’t consider it an official holiday.
Hunger plagued the indigenous Ga people of Ghana for years when seasonal rains failed to come, leading to widespread famine. Once the rain returned, they started celebrating by literally mocking their past struggles with a holiday called Homowo, meaning “jeering at hunger.”
At the heart of the celebration is the yams — before the seasonal rain, the Ga people remain super quiet so they won’t disturb the yams from growing, but once they do, they roast and stew them for a delicious feast. Also on the menu is kpokpoi or kpekpele, a festival food made of corn meal and palm nut soup. The lively festivities also include maize sprinkled around town by the community leaders, along with drum beating, chanting, dancing, singing, and face painting.
Chuseok, South Korea
The lunar calendar shows that the largest full moon of the year happens on the 15th day of the eighth month, which times perfectly to the Hangawi celebration “Han” means big and “gawi” signifies the ides of the eighth lunar month, better known as Chuseok.
Chuseok is a family affair, with a morning starting with ceremonies to honor ancestors or charye, followed by a meal to celebrate the harvest. Families often will sit down together before the meal and make songpyeon, a rice powder ball filled with sesame seeds, beans, or chestnuts. Legend even says that the one who makes the most artful songpyeon will have the most beautiful child.
Mid-Autumn Festival, Taiwan and China
According to legend, there were once 10 suns and heroic Hou Yi shot down nine of them to cool down the Earth and earned an elixir that would transform him into a god from the goddess of the heavens. But instead, his wife Chang’e drank it and flew to the moon along with a rabbit — the shadow of which can be spotted during a full moon. Hou Yi put out food hoping she would appear every year on the moon’s brightest day — falling on Zhong Qiu Je, meaning Mid-Autumn Festival, or the Harvest Moon Festival. In essence, it’s the Taiwanese and Chinese version of Chuseok, also held on the 15th day of the lunar calendar’s eighth month, when the bright moon is believed to help farmers working late in the fields.
The annual celebration emphasizes family connectivity, even in the way that the festival’s traditional food, the moon cake, is served. The intricately decorated, round cakes feature sweet fillings such as sweet lotus seed paste and are cut into equal sizes for each family member to emphasize equality among the family bonds.
Tết Trung Thu, Vietnam
The Vietnamese version of the Mid-Autumn Festival known as Tết Trung Thu is also known as the Children’s Festival since it centers around the young, who parade with lanterns at night to light the way to Earth for the legendary Cuội, who has lived on the moon ever since he hung onto a banyan tree as it floated up there.
Among the children in procession is a male dancer with a happy-face mask who represents the moon and plenty of lion dancers that serve as comic relief. The Vietnamese also enjoy moon cakes on Tết Trung Thu. One of the most festive celebrations is in the ancient town of Hội An, where dancers and drummers perform on the streets and along the Thu Bồn river.
The cornucopia or horn of plenty that has become an icon of Thanksgiving in the U.S. originated in Europe, which has been celebrating harvest festivals even before Christianity. The horns filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains were viewed as a token of appreciation for the labor put in to ensure a successful harvest.
Quite literally, Erntedankfest means “harvest thank festival” in German and is held the first Sunday of October. While a meal is a part of the tradition (typically featuring chicken, rooster, or goose since turkeys are North American birds), the day usually starts with a church service followed by a procession where the erntekrone, or harvest crown, is presented. The celebration continues with music, dancing, and often parades and fireworks.
Dia de Ação de Graças, Brazil
A Brazilian ambassador to the United States apparently returned back from a trip one November in the 1940s and was so impressed by American Thanksgiving that he convinced Gaspar Dutra, who was president at the time, that the South Americans should adopt the same tradition — or at least that’s how the story goes.
While the veracity of the conversation may or may not hold up, Brazil’s Dia de Ação de Graças, which translates to “Day of Action of Thanks,” is definitely modeled after the American tradition since it’s also celebrated on a Thursday in November. But more similarly to other nations, it starts with a church service and ends with dancing in the streets, almost in the vein of Carnival.
Crop Over Festival, Barbados
Perhaps most made famous by Bajan superstar Rihanna’s extravagant outfits to celebrate the annual holiday, the island nation’s 200-year-old tradition honors the end of the sugar cane season — historically Barbados’ most essential crop — in the summer and is celebrated for a full six weeks with overnight parties that often go until dawn.
With arts and crafts markets and street food throughout the celebrations, the festivities culminate in the final grand parade on Kadooment Day in August, when the Bajans don flashy costumes with sequins, feathers, and jewels and dance along Spring Garden Highway.
Five days after Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths, is actually a double Thanksgiving. The holiday centers around giving thanks to the grains and fruits that were harvested, but also to God for the natural resources that allowed the Israelites to build huts called sukkots made of four plant species during the Exodus.
During the celebration, a sukkah (singular for sukkot) is built using a citron, palm branch, two willow branches, and three myrtle branches. Observants eat inside the sukkah for the duration of the weeklong celebration, while some also choose to sleep inside of it since they are meant to spend as much time in there as possible.
In southern India, especially in Tamil Nadu, people give thanks to the rice, sugarcane, and turmeric crops during the four-day harvest festival in the month of Thai, which falls in January and February. The word ponga means “to boil,” referencing the cooking of the crops, but it’s also the name of a dish that’s eaten during the festival, which is made of sweet rice boiled with lentils.
During the first day of Pongal, unused items around the house are thrown into a bonfire for the god of rain and clouds. On the second day, rice and milk are boiled together during a ceremony as an offering to the sun god. The third day is dedicated to cows, which are worshipped by dressing them up with bells and garlands. On the final day, a ritual featuring food served on a turmeric leaf accompanies visits with family.
Liberian Thanksgiving, Liberia
When the freed slaves returned to Liberia around the 1820s, they also brought back the American tradition of Thanksgiving. It quickly became part of the nation’s culture, so much so that the first Thursday in November was declared a national holiday in the 1880s.
Liberians begin the holiday by going to their places of worship, where fresh fruit cornucopias are auctioned after the service. Afterward, they go home and enjoy feasts with family and friends, much like we do in the U.S. There are often concerts and dancing surrounding the celebration, but at heart, Liberian Thanksgiving is a time to thank God for peaceful times.
Kinrō Kansha No Hi, Japan
For centuries, the Japanese celebrated the rice harvest during Niinamesai, but it’s since evolved into Kinrō Kansha No Hi, which translates to “Labor Thanksgiving Day.” The holiday focuses on the rights of workers in the form of community-building, as labor organizations hold events to reflect on issues ranging from environmental concerns to human rights. In some regions, children make crafts to show the local police and firefighters how grateful they are for their protection.
Celebrated in the Malaysian state of Sabah by the Kadazan-Dusun, the harvest celebration in May, also known as Pesta Kaamatan marks the end of the rice harvest. Revelers indulge in tapai (wine made of rice) and celebrations include traditional games like tug-o-war and arm wrestling, alongside buffalo races. Dancers also perform the mangunatip bamboo dance and a beauty pageant is held to find the girl who most looks like Huminodun, the daughter of a god who was sacrificed to save the people from death during a harsh famine.
Grenada Thanksgiving, Grenada
Held on October 25, Grenada’s Thanksgiving commemorates when the American military arrived to help put things in order after their communist leader died in 1983.
These days, the feast resembles much of what Thanksgiving looks like in the U.S., since it all started when the soldiers stationed there would tell Grenadians what the holiday was all about. The locals ended up throwing the Americans a surprise party with turkey, stuffing, gravy, and other popular, delicious side dishes.
Norfolk Island Thanksgiving, Australia
When American trader Isaac Robinson hosted an American Thanksgiving in the remote Australian territory of Norfolk Island in the 1890s, he successfully lured visiting American whalers to his celebration at the All Saints Church in Kingston. Today, the holiday is celebrated on the final Wednesday of November with hymns and fruits, vegetables, and cornstalks decorating the church.
Leiden’s Breaking of the Spanish Siege, Netherlands
Before the Mayflower sailed across the Atlantic, many English colonists lived in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands from 1609 to 1620. Upon their arrival in the New World, they ended up adopting many Dutch traditions, including a holiday similar to Thanksgiving known as Leiden’s annual celebration touting the Breaking of the Spanish Siege in 1574. The holiday is still celebrated in the 900-year-old church of Pieterskerk, which hosts a Thanksgiving Day service.