Roasted turkey with stuffing, sweet and mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, apple pie and pumpkin pie; these are the traditional foods of the Canadian Thanksgiving. The similarities, including football games make you wonder which celebration came first; American or Canadian. Canada celebrates on the second Monday of October and their holiday predates ours by almost 50 years. While the exact origins of their reasons for giving thanks are not clear, it is most widely attributed to Martin Frobisher who set sail from England. Grateful for his safe arrival to New Foundland he decided a party was in order and the tradition continues to this day. As Americans we too have a lot to celebrate and have a national holiday that allows us to reflect upon our bounty and give thanks once a year. When it comes to classic American holidays, the tradition of gathering around the Thanksgiving table is at the top of the list. The image is so beloved it was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in one of his most iconic and recognizable pieces in the 4 Freedoms collection called “Freedom From Want”.
The United States will celebrate Thanksgiving this week and while we consider it to be an “American” holiday, Canada and other countries demonstrate that the giving of thanks is not unique to our culture. Indeed, humankind has been giving thanks for centuries. It was the Pilgrims who first sat down to feast in 1621 and are recognized as being the originators of what we now call Thanksgiving. In 1863 President Lincoln elevated the party status to National Holiday. Many cultures also hold an annual celebration to give thanks or to celebrate the Harvest Moon and the bounty she delivers. Let’s take a quick trip around the world.
Israel: Sukkot, also spelled as Succoth, is the 7 day Jewish Festival often called the Feast of the Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths. The unusual festival name originates from Sukkots which are hut like shelters.. This represents the nomadic dwellings that sheltered the Jewish people as they spent 40 years in the desert. It is also a celebration and time of giving thanks for the bountiful Autumn harvest crop enjoyed following the fast of the High Holy Days.
A traditional observance of the holiday will often include a recreation of the temporary structures, known as Sukkah, in public places of worship and in the backyards of the faithful. To honor their ancestors, Jewish families will dine and may even sleep in the Sukkah. The Sukkah are purposely built as temporary structures which also represents that life is temporary. Sukkot was observed this year on the evening of October 17 and will be celebrated next year on the evening of October 5, 2017.
China: The Chinese people celebrate the Mid Autumn festival, an event that I’ve written about in a previous article. Visiting Hong Kong late one September and searching for a place to have dinner I was drawn in by the noise of what sounded like a party. In fact it was a street festival, a celebration in honor of the Full Moon and I was lucky enough to arrive just in time to see the dragon dance performed. I will never forget the colors, the energy and the excitement of that spectacle. Sampling moon cakes and strolling among the colorful stalls was also memorable and I’ll always be grateful that I wandered a bit further and allowed my curiosity to lead me to a wonderful experience.
Barbados: Closer to home, in the Caribbean Sea, the island of Barbados celebrates Crop Over. The Bajan Festival blends the traditions of both England and African harvest celebrations and signals the end of sugar cane harvest season. While, no longer a staple crop of the British influenced island, the locals have kept the party going. Calypso music, elaborate costumes, parades and the ceremonial delivering of the last cane of the season make this a unique gratitude festival. The Crop Over season lasts from May to August culminating in Grand Kadooment Day. Best described as the Grand Finale with a colorful and grand parade and street carnival.
Africa: If you’re a fan of yams there’s a party just for you. I do love yams. It doesn’t matter if they’re baked, fried or mashed, I love the sweet potato so much, I’m happy to eat it plain, straight out of its warm, steaming jacket. Imagine my delight to learn that there’s an entire festival dedicated to celebrating yams. As a root crop it’s a staple of the diet of many cultures, especially in poorer nations. A bounty of yams that can be stored for months means that there will be a steady supply of food and that’s worth celebrating. Harvest feasts are held during the Fall period on two continents both in Africa and Papua New Guinea. Parades, dancing and singing, tribal drumming and eating yams are all a central part of the festivities.
Great Britain: The Brits hold their own version of a Harvest Festival and it is considered to be one of the oldest known of all the Harvest Festivals. According to website “Country File” there is a charming tradition of making corn dolls from the last sheaths of the harvest which expressed the farmers’ joy and hope for the future. The dolls were placed on the banquet tables when parishes held their huge feasts and kept until the Spring to ensure the continuation of a good crop next year. This custom began with Saxon farmers, who believed the last sheath contained the spirit of the corn and represented the goddess of the grain.
Australia: Autumn arrives “early” down under. The geographic location of the continent is such that the Aussie Fall coincides with our Spring. Therefore, harvest time arrives in March and so does the annual festival celebrating the crops of grapes and apples. Instead of sitting down for one big feast, the locals party for days. The Aussies will compete in grape crushing competitions which naturally leads to wine competitions. Street carnivals and a grand parade are a part of the festivities and nothing says “thanks for the bounty” better than fireworks. For the Grand Finale no festival is complete without the crowning of an ‘apple n grape’ ambassador.
So many people and so many countries with so many problems still have much for which to be grateful. The celebrations may differ but they are a direct reflection of the people who are celebrating. The one thing we all have in common is gratitude. As you sit down with family and friends, holding hands around the table and giving thanks for the bounty in your lives I wish you a joyous celebration. Happy Thanksgiving.