How Thanksgiving Is Celebrated Around the World
Americans didn’t invent Thanksgiving. OK, maybe gorging ourselves on turkey and passing out in front of the Lions game is all ours, but when it comes to fall harvest festivals, that idea goes further back than the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock.
Countries all over the globe have their own versions of Thanksgiving, and while some are inspired by our concept, others -- particularly those involving rice cakes and fish soup -- not so much. Here’s how they give thanks in other parts of the world.
China: Mid-Autumn Moon Festival
When it's celebrated: The 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar
While not the most riveting of holiday traditions, staring at the moon is one of the main activities of this two-day Chinese festival. It typically falls in September or October, when the moon is believed to be at its biggest, brightest, and fullest.
Dating back over 3,500 years, this is China’s second-largest festival and is celebrated with mooncakes: big, round, flaky pastries filled with everything from fruit to nuts to eggs and made to look like giant moons. Children also make lanterns for the holiday, though not nearly with the fervor they do for the annual Lantern Festival.
Brazil: Dia de Ação de Graças
When it's celebrated: The last Thursday in November
Legend has it that when the Brazilian ambassador to the US returned from a November trip in the 1940s, he told then-President Gaspar Dutra about this amazing holiday where Americans ate a ton of food. And then he was like, “We should do this! But let's add a giant street party! Because we’re Brazil.” (Naturally, we're paraphrasing.)
So that’s exactly what they did, and now Brazil celebrates Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. Only difference: no Cowboys game! Also, it begins with a church service to give thanks for the fall harvest and ends with a sort of autumn Carnival. Other than that, the meal is almost identical. Well, except they replace cranberry sauce with jabuticaba sauce, and they call turkey “Peru.”
When it's celebrated: On the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar
Much like we do on Thanksgiving, Koreans give thanks by clogging the country's airport and roads -- it's one of the busiest travel seasons of the year. In addition to giving thanks for food, the three-day holiday (which typically falls in September or October) also serves as a remembrance of deceased ancestors, and family visits to grave sites outside the major cities is as much a part of Chuseok as the traditional daylong feast. And speaking of a traditional feast, this one is highlighted by songpyeon: sticky, honey-sweetened rice cakes that are typically filled with toasted sesame seeds, peas, or chestnuts.
When it's celebrated: The first Thursday in November
Despite Liberia being founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves, only a small percentage of its population is actually descended from American expats. And while the Thanksgiving celebration they brought with them is a popular national holiday, it’s mostly observed by the nation’s Christian population.
On the first Thursday in November, Liberians take traditional Thanksgiving cornucopias, fill them with tropical fruits like mangoes, pineapples, and bananas, and bring them to the morning church service. When the service concludes, the cornucopias are auctioned off and everyone goes home to eat chicken, green bean casserole, and mashed cassavas.
When it's celebrated: The first Sunday after September 29th
Kinda like the good sibling who keeps quiet and doesn’t make trouble, Erntedankfest gets ignored by the rest of the world compared to beer-soaked Oktoberfest. But this annual holiday is Germany’s major harvest festival and traditionally begins with a church service to give thanks. It continues with the country’s version of a Thanksgiving Day parade, but instead of giant Snoopy balloons, they have a Harvest Queen who wears a crown of grains. The day ends with an epic poultry feast that ironically includes every bird BUT turkey, since that’s actually New World meat.
Canada: Canadian Thanksgiving (L'Action de Grâce)
When it's celebrated: The second Monday in October
Because it’s Canada, Thanksgiving has a name in English and French. And also because it’s Canada, people think it’s the same as the US version -- but it's not! Completely different. Canadian Thanksgiving commemorates the landing of Martin Frobisher in Newfoundland (make sure you’re pronouncing that correctly) in 1578 and was first celebrated to give thanks for safe passage across the Atlantic. Canadians celebrated it on November 6th from the time it was instituted as a national holiday in 1879 until 1957, when it was moved to the second Monday in October. This wasn’t done just so Canada could be different, but because their harvest season runs earlier up north.
The traditional meals are typically held the weekend before, so they don’t have to schedule any Monday night 110-yard football games, and involve two days of pigging out on the same stuff we do: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy.
Vietnam: Tet Trung Thu Festival
When it's celebrated: The 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar
Latchkey kids are nothing new, just ask the Vietnamese. As far back as several thousand years ago, parents would completely abandon their kids to focus on the annual harvest. And with no Xbox or HBO, those kids got massively bored. So, much like parents do today by buying them iPhones, the Vietnamese needed a way to make it up to their kids.
Enter the Tet Trung Thu Festival, known as the “Festival of Children.” Originated by parents to spend time with their long-neglected kids after the harvest, it’s now a nightlong celebration where children take over the streets in a parade of colorful lanterns and traditional dances. Like the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, it's held on the day when the moon is said to be its fullest; and thus, it should come as no surprise that the Vietnamese also celebrate with delicious moon cakes.
Barbados: Crop Over
When it's celebrated: June to the first week in August
Dating back to the 17th century when Barbados was one of the world's leading producers of sugarcane, this festival marks the end of the sugarcane season, and hence the end of backbreaking labor for the slaves who worked in the fields. It is typically celebrated much like other Caribbean Carnivals, with dancing, parades, and colorful costumes. While the holiday briefly ended in the 1940s due to World War II, it was reintroduced in 1974 as a way to bring tourism to the island.
When it's celebrated: October 5th
This is also known as the "Festival of the Old Woman." However, instead of driving slowly and taking FOREVER to figure out the debit card scanner at the grocery store, Lithuanians celebrate the wheat harvest by making a scarecrow (known as a Boba) that looks like an old lady.
During the holiday, people eat rye bread, beets, and other traditional foods you'd associate with Lithuania. They also sing a traditional Nubaigai song that tells the tale of a bison that tried to eat the wheat crop before ultimately being defeated by the people.
Japan: Kinrō Kansha no Hi
When it's celebrated: November 23rd
Leave it to the Japanese to take an American holiday that revolves around gluttony and make it about work. This holiday -- celebrated every November 23rd -- is known as Labor Thanksgiving Day and commemorates not only the rice harvest, but other peoples' hard work and the “fruits” it produces. Get it???
Though this version of the holiday was established in 1948 as a celebration of post-WWII workers’ rights, it originated from another festival that dates back as far as 678 CE called niiname sai. During that time, the emperor would give thanks for the first rice harvest of the year, and then eat the rice himself. Because he could.
Ghana: Homowo Festival
When it's celebrated: May-August
Homowo, which loosely translates into “hoot at hunger” and sounds more like some kind of charity event that involves wings and women in orange shorts, is actually a remembrance of a great famine the Ga people experienced in the Accra region of Ghana. The term is more like “shout at the devil,” commemorating the people’s resilience in the face of hunger.
The festival runs from May to August (the rainy season) and is a time for people to give thanks for the rains they lacked during the famine. It begins with the planting of maize and other crops in May and continues with a number of rituals (the banning of noise, the banning of fishing, etc.) designed to focus attention on farming. It concludes with the Homowo Festival, where people return to their hometowns and eat a traditional pine nut fish soup and unfermented corn powder called kpokpoi.
When it's celebrated: October 25th
Who knew that when we invaded Grenada in 1983 to rescue a group of medical students and/or overthrow a communist government and/or divert attention from the tragic Marine bombings in Beirut just days prior, we would end up spreading one of our greatest holidays to another country? Occupying forces told the locals about our upcoming harvest festival, and the Grenadians liked the idea so much they adopted the holiday for themselves. But their version is celebrated on October 25th, to commemorate the US liberation.
When it's celebrated: The fourth Thursday in November
Here’s a little history lesson for you: nearly 40% of the people on the Mayflower came from the town of Leiden in the Netherlands. So, if your city was responsible for nearly half of the colonists who made the first American Thanksgiving, you probably feel some kind of special connection, right?
Well, the folks who still live in Leiden do, though you may find the Dutch version of our Thanksgiving a little disappointing. It’s really only celebrated in that one town, and instead of a gluttonous dinner and evening on the couch, it mostly consists of a church service and cookies.
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