Given the regional history of Thanksgiving, one might think it is a uniquely American holiday.
We grew up reciting plays of pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread in Plymouth, Massachusetts, often in cringe-worthy homemade costumes and paper hats. While many of us have since learned that the true origins of Thanksgiving are far too dark and genocidal for an elementary school play, the tradition of gathering and feasting is often our strongest association with the third Thursday of November. Thanksgiving celebrations in American households typically host the same crowd pleasers: a gigantic turkey, mashed potatoes, greens, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy. These Thanksgiving staples appear to be widespread across the nation, offering a consistent set of traditions in American culture. Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations, however, are not at all unique to the United States. In fact, these celebrations occur around the world! The following countries partake in their own versions of Thanksgiving with varying historical origins.
Meaning “the harvest festival of thanks,” Erntedankfest takes place on the first Sunday of October in Germany. Some argue that this religious holiday has taken place for thousands of years – predating our Thanksgiving by many centuries. On this religious holiday, participants wear a harvest crown, or Erntekrone, made of grain, flowers, fruit, and colorful ribbon. Church altars display seasonal fruits, vegetables, and wheat. Autumnal parades, celebrations, and feasts carry on for up to three days! Traditional Erntedankfest foods include honeycomb, freshly harvested produce, and die Masthühnchen, or “fattened up chicken.”
Liberia’s version of Thanksgiving occurs on the first Thursday of November. Thanksgiving in Liberia shares many of the American traditions, no doubt influenced by the country’s history of establishment, circa the 1820s. With the help of the American Colonization Society, formerly enslaved Africans came to Liberia for liberation and opportunity. From a passing glance, you might mistake a Liberian Thanksgiving feast for an American one. Liberians celebrate Thanksgiving with spicy roast chicken, mashed cassava, and green bean casserole.
Japan: Kinro Kansha no Hi
The Japanese version of Thanksgiving is meant to honor labor, practice gratitude, and celebrate production. Occurring on November 23rd, this holiday evolved from an ancient rice harvest festival Niiname-Sai that celebrated the harvest of the five grains. Some scholars date the practice of Niiname-Sai to 667-686 AD. Japan’s modern celebration of Thanksgiving, “Kinro Kansha no Hi,” meaning Labor Thanksgiving Day, was established three years after World War II. Postwar, Japan experienced constitutional changes that championed the inclusion of human and labor rights. Japan’s version of Thanksgiving does not include feasting, but instead the exchange of small candies, chocolates, and letters of thanks.
Meaning “booths,” Sukkot is one of three pilgrimage festivals celebrated in Israel. During Sukkot, Jewish people honor harvest and remember their liberation from Egyptian slavery and the 40 years spent wandering to Israel. During these 40 years, Jews lived in temporary homes called sukkahs made out of dry palms and branches. Today while celebrating Sukkot, Jewish Israelis create sukkahs to dwell in. Families commonly decorate sukkah huts with leaves, fruits, and vegetables. During Sukkot, you may hear “chag sameach” meaning “joyous festival!”
Vietnam: Tết Trung Thu Festival
This mid-autumn moon festival is an ancient celebration of children. Dating back as far as 15,000 years ago in Southeast Asia, Tết Trung Thu is said to have evolved from parents making up for time spent laboring during the harvest season. This joyous holiday is celebrated under a full moon to represent fullness and prosperity – illuminating a night full of mooncakes, paper lanterns, and parades.
Autumnal celebrations are not limited to just the United States or those listed. Harvest provides a time for closeness, reflection, and harmony that is recognized by a laundry list of cultures.