The meaning of Thanksgiving is to be thankful. There, problem solved.
But thankful for what exactly? Should we thank the pilgrims for breaking bread with the indigenous people of North America? Or for their willingness to leave the powerful hand of England? Do we thank God(s) the ability to wake up every morning, for the food in front of our face, and the phones in our pockets? Other cultures do. Many just plain celebrate traditions.
Thanksgiving isn’t just an American holiday. There are a multitude of varieties of other cultures that practice their own versions of the famed food holiday. Most of them are situated in harvest festivals but the common idea is applicable.
There are many, many cultures in Africa so not many of them celebrate American customs. However, people of Ghana observe the traditional Homowo Festival -- the largest cultural festival in Africa. The harvest festival is related to the Ga people’s migration to Ghana. Homowo means “hooting at hunger,” which is in relation to the famine experienced by those who traveled nomadically and their gained strength from their trials. The people weren’t deterred by their hunger and, when they eventually settled, they produced a large amount of food in a harvest. Legends say with their hunger done, the Ga people literally “hooted at hunger.” In modern times, families share kpokpoi -- a corn meal served with fish and palm soup -- while dancing the traditional “oshi joo.” Priests sprinkle the kpokpoi in the streets accompanied with drumming, horn blowing, singing and “oshi joo” dancing.
Sidenote: There is also another festival called The Festival of Yams (yams are the most popular food). A few days of ceremony and offerings to God and ancestors is followed by yam harvests. Said offerings are shared among the people. In doing this, they are showing thanks for their food.
On the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, the Mooncake Festival (more commonly known as the Mid-Autumn Festival or the August Moon Festival) is celebrated. Traditional movements have lessened themselves over the past few decades but new ones are stepping up. Before, in the Tang Dynasty, many showed their appreciation for the moon. The Northern Song Dynasty solidified the notion by establishing a name in the Mid-Autumn Festival and introducing moon sacrifices. The Ming Dynasty and subsequent Qing Dynasty saw several exercises in celebration like the fire dragon dance at large scale parties. Lapsed friendships are mended, mooncakes are eaten, and long lost loves are said to be found on the day.
Usually taking place in September, the harvest festival known as Lammas (“loaf mass”) is celebrated through bread. A loaf of bread is made out of the first cut wheat, taken to church and eaten by the mass. Deep-sea fishers return and the festival is thrown in the Scotland Isles.
Sidenote: Another festival called Michaelmas is held on September 29. There is a Goose Fair along with a special daisy that is said to fight against the dreariness that comes with winter.
This commonwealth has enough harvest festivals to take up all of fall and then some. But most of them take place outside of common fall festival timeframes. Additionally, they aren’t widely celebrated. Take the Lavender Harvest Festival where, in the first three weeks of January, the harvesting of lavender flowers happens. Goods based on the scent are prepared and visitors to the festival can purchase them. Then there’s the Cane Festival, Hops Festival, Wheat Festival, Apple & Grape Festival, and Renmark Orange Week Festival. Each more or less celebrates what its name suggests.
Residents of Bali get to experience Nyepi, which signifies the beginning of a new lunar year. Taking place during the spring equinox, the day consists of complete silence among the balinese and tourists. What’s more is that no work must be done, there’s no travel and no fun in general can be had. Nyepi is for purification so that good crops may be created.
Austrians take part in a harvest festival that centers primarily on wine. Saint Leopold’s Feast Day is the start of heurigen -- new wine season. Wine tastings and wine picnics take place and the actual festival features live folk music. To top it all off, those in Krems, Klosterneuburg and Vienna drink Leopolsberg, a special wine. Austrians do, indeed, celebrate Erntedankfest much like Germany.
Labor Thanksgiving Day (“Kinro Kansha no Hi”) is what used to be called Niinamesai (“Harvest Festival”). The original stems from regular harvest festivals while its modern incarnation is tied to celebration of hard work and community involvement. Actually, the latter version was fully recognized in 1948 to recognize worker’s rights in a post-World War II Japan. Think of it as a national holiday that celebrates the work of police officers and the like.
In 1983, following the death of Maurice Bishop, American military forces restored peace in the West Indian island. Those stationed around November began telling locals about Thanksgiving. Wanting to thank the soldiers for the service, the local people threw a dinner with all of the traditional Thanksgiving food.
l'Action de grâce, Canadian Thanksgiving, is a day for “general thanksgiving” according to the Parliament. The date was cemented in 1957 and is observed on the second Monday in October. They pretty much do everything Americans do.
Encompassed by dancing, art, and all around happy celebration, Crop Over is a harvest festival that came from sugar plantations of all places. Animals even joined in on the festivities by being decorated with flowers. Plantation owners would use these animals to provide a meal for the slaves. In modern times, festival goers eat the same food of their ancestors. Better yet: it’s a three week long jubilee.
They celebrate their Thanksgiving -- dubbed Erntedankfest (meaning harvest thanksgiving festival”) -- on the first Sunday of October; although, there is no official date compared to American and Canadian Thanksgiving. Rural residents participate in a harvest festival during which they give thanks for a good year and good fortune. Activities for the festival vary from going to church to parades and music. It gives off a kind of county fair vibe. For a more urban setting, the festival can be sponsored by Catholic or Protestant church. Their celebration is slightly different. They lead a choir in song then have a procession where the Erntekrone (“harvest crown”) is presented for the Erntekönigin (“harvest queen”). Following that is the party atmosphere. Ending the festival is an evening service accompanied by a lantern and torch parade and, finally, some fireworks.
Fun fact: a large percent of the adults on the Mayflower started their journey in Leiden, a municipality in the Dutch province of South Holland. To add to that, The Smithsonian suggests the Dutch claim a lot of influence on American Thanksgiving. On the day that you’re stuffing your mouth, residents of Leiden gather in a 900 year old church called Pieterskerk in order to celebrate the American settler’s fortitude and good luck. They don’t partake in large meals though. Following the service, Leidens eat cookies and drink coffee.
Oddly enough, the UK does not have a set date for their Harvest Day. They basically take non-perishable food to local churches. And that’s it.
A springtime harvest festival dedicated to the pagan god Min (fertility god for man and land, vegetation too) was held. The king of the region would use a sickle to cut the first ears of corn. There was also a parade and a subsequent large scale feast. After dancing, sports and whatnot, farmers would pretend to cry over their harvested corn. This was to mislead the spirits that lived inside of the corn who, if they didn’t get their good cry, would be mad that their corn homes were swiftly cut down.
Demeter, goddess of grains, was worshipped so that she would bless her followers with fertility. This was known as The Festival of Thesmophoria. It was held in several cities and villages. Marreid women would make leaf laden shelters. The next day, they fasted. And on the third day was a big meal. During the feast, various items were offered to Demeter.
Chuseok is one of the more extensive celebrations. It’s a sign of respect towards the elders of the community. Families travel from all over to share stories of ancestors. There are memorial services that focus on ancestors along with cleaning of the weeds around the graves; wrestling; and food and liquors. Chuseok is also called Hangawi (“big...the ides of the 8th lunar month or autumn”).
There are a lot of Thanksgiving-esque festivals in India. Plus they take place all over the subcontinent. The Northern Indian harvest festival is when people harvest their wheat. It does have different names like Lohri, Makar Sankranti, Bhogi, and Lohri. East India has a harvest festival (Bhagavata Purana) where they take in rice. And South India has Onam, one of the more popular festivals that features the pacing of a pookkalam mat in front of every home as well as eating of payasam (rice pudding). The southern region also gets Pongal, a four day festival.
The Festa dos Tabuleiros (“Festival of the Trays”) may happen every four years, but it is definitely one of the more respected ones. It features several processions; some promote traditions to younger generations and others have the Catholic Church blessing actual trays. It’s very big and the entire population takes part in all the fun.
The southeastern Asian country celebrates Kadazan (referred to as “Tadau Kaamatan” locally) in May to thank the rice god. It’s specifically marked by the Unduk Ngadau pageant which is for the harvest festival queen. It comes from the denizens belief that their ancestors suffered from a famine that was curbed by their God Kinoingan taking pity, sacrificing his daughter Huminodun and cutting her in pieces to feed the people. Admittedly pretty dark. From her flesh spreading across the land came the first rice plants. The modern population now holds a homecoming for the rice along with a six stage ritual.