In the US, we typically celebrate thanksgiving, or the season of giving thanks by gathering with family and friends, around a huge meal. We give thanks for our relationships and everything good in our lives, while we look forward to everything to come in the new year. Most Americans, however, are unaware of the fact that the tradition of giving thanks is not unique to America. Giving thanks dates to the earliest of human societies, and is practiced in nearly every culture. Let’s take a look at what the rest of the world does to give thanks.
Most ancient cultures had harvest festivals, many of which are still celebrated today. The names and stated reasons tend to change, but the festival dates and purposes are largely the same. Ancient Egyptians celebrated their springtime corn harvest by worshiping their god Min, while ancient Greeks celebrated a festival to honor the goddess Demeter in early autumn. The timeframe of both these festivals tends to revolve around the harvest. Many of the traditions and symbols, like the cornucopia from Greece, carry forward to modern times.
Modern celebrations from different cultures generally blend the old with the new. In Alaska, natives celebrate both the traditional harvest festival and the American Thanksgiving. The Alaskan traditional harvest tradition involves thanking the spirits for berry and salmon harvests that includes dancing to attract beneficial spirits. They also have, for the most part, adopted the turkey and mashed potatoes of the traditional American Thanksgiving.
Canada is a nation that celebrates the survival of colonists, rather than a harvest. That part of the tradition may be unique to the new world. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Thanksgiving has been exported to a good bit of it. Brazil, for instance, celebrates a bountiful harvest in the same way we do in the states. A Brazilian ambassador to the US fell in love with the idea of a dedicated holiday,8 and brought it back to Brazil. Liberia celebrates Thanksgiving like the US, because they followed the US model very closely. The nation was constructed as a safe place for freed slaves after the US Civil War.
The Netherlands claims to have given many traditions to the US, mainly because a tremendous number of early settlers were Dutch. On the fourth Thursday in November, they share coffee and cookies – not nearly as elaborate as our Thanksgiving – regardless, the date is significant. Many other European nations borrow from or celebrate the American Thanksgiving in some part. In Germany, they celebrate Erntedankfest in October, and many have begun serving turkey and stuffing in addition to their traditional chickens and geese.
Even in the East, thanks is given. The Chinese celebrate the harvest moon festival, or Chung Ch’ui, on August 15th. While this celebration is also called the woman festival, it’s believed the moon is brightest and roundest on this day. They bake small yellow cakes called moon cakes which are gifted to friends and relatives to show appreciation. This is similar in both timeframe and custom to the Korean practice of ‘Fall Evening’ which is celebrated from the 14th to the 16th of August. They also make a special food called songpyeon which is eaten after a family gathering in the moonlight to honor ancestors and dance for good fortune.
You’d be hard pressed to find a culture that doesn’t give thanks in some way. We just tend to go all out on the food here. Take some time this Thanksgiving to consider the things we share with the rest of the world – humanity is outstanding at thankfulness. And perhaps consider pondering on all the things you can be thankful for…