In October 1621, some 90 native Wampanoag joined 53 pilgrims at Plimoth (sic) Plantation for a feast that stretched over three days.
Indigenous people had taught the immigrants to catch eels and grow corn and squash. Attendee Edward Winslow tells us that a pilgrim hunting party shot a significant number of waterfowl for the celebration. When Wampanoag chief Massasoit determined there wouldn’t be enough food, he dispatched his own hunting party, which bagged five deer for the feast.
Neither group was new to the concept. “Thanksgivings” were a regular feature of English culture, and thanking the creator for worldly gifts was part of Wampanoag daily life.
While this fabled event is widely accepted as our “first” thanksgiving, Indigenous people throughout the Americas had rituals to celebrate successful harvests and hunts. And thanksgivings celebrated by both French and Spanish settlers in what is now the United States were documented in the prior century.
As an established holiday, it got off to a rocky start. George Washington declared a national holiday in 1789. Thomas Jefferson declined. Thanksgiving didn’t become a permanent fixture on our calendars until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, when the ravages of the Civil War had left people far less for which to be thankful. Perhaps Lincoln did it as a political gesture, but I’d like to think that the stubborn Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book — who had tirelessly advocated for a national holiday since 1846 — finally got her way.
It’s appropriate to reflect on what today means for us, but it’s fascinating to take a worldwide view. Around the globe, people celebrate harvest festivals, with corresponding traditions that are arguably more colorful than watching college football or falling asleep on the couch.
A worldview of gratitude
Grecians, who depend on fish for protein, observe the Blessing of the Sea. At Epiphany, processions set off from local churches to the sea, where a priest blesses a gold cross before hurling it into the waters. Men leap in to retrieve it. The victor achieves grace, and banishes old spirits from the new year. When the cross has been retrieved, fishing boats arrive at the scene to receive their annual blessing.
Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, is venerated as a matter of course in Bali, where rice is the staple crop. During the harvest, villages are adorned with flags, and simple bamboo temples dedicated to the goddess are erected in the most sacred corners of the rice fields. Small dolls crafted from rice stalks representing Dewi Sri are placed in granaries as offerings.
In Argentina, the archbishop of Mendoza sprinkles the season’s first grapes with holy water and offers the vintage to God. A monthlong celebration ensues. Crowds line the streets to watch a parade of regional floats bearing competing beauty queens. The festival culminates with a spectacular in the amphitheater. Musicians, dancers and other entertainers take the stage before the Harvest Queen is chosen amid a booming backdrop of fireworks.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of China’s most important traditions. Since it coincides with the full moon on the eighth lunar month, it’s also called the Moon Festival. Delicacies known as moon cakes, a rich pastry filled with red bean or lotus paste, are critical to the celebration. Ceremonies are held to give thanks for the harvest and encourage life-giving sunlight for the following year. The festival abounds with public and private gatherings — and perhaps because of its association with fertility — it’s a favorite time for matchmaking.
The Ewe people of Ghana celebrate the end of the rainy season and the first appearance of yams, a staple crop. The festival is largely aimed at averting famine in the coming year. Duration of the Yam Festival varies from place to place, but is always marked by feasts, dances and parades.
Sukkot is celebrated by Jews around the world, but it’s perhaps most visible in Israel. Families build makeshift huts, or sukkah, with roofs open to the sky. Here they eat, and sometimes sleep, for seven days. Wands of myrtle, willow and palms are shaken every day in every direction to honor the land’s gifts. Its roots are agricultural and spiritual. Sukkot celebrates a bountiful harvest and remembers the time of the Exodus, when the Israelites occupied temporary shelters in the desert.
Chanthaburi, Thailand, is known for gemstones and for its beautiful fruits, which are arguably just as colorful. Their harvest Fruit Fair exhibits exotic mangosteens, durians, longans and rambutans, in elaborate arrangements that have been compared to Buddhist mandalas. Unlike the Rose Bowl Parade on our side of the globe, their parade floats are decorated with beautiful local fruits.
Words of thanksgiving
As intriguing as these harvest celebrations are, it’s more poignant to look at the blessings that various cultures say at the table.
In Japan, meals traditionally begin with a single word: itadakimasu. It can be translated to “I humbly receive this meal.” But its intention is far more broad. By uttering the term, the diner is thanking everyone who helped bring food to the table, from the person who prepared it to the hunters, farmers and fishermen.
Latin Americans might offer up this prayer: “To those who have hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.”
In Ghana, they may repeat the following: “Earth, when I am about to die I lean on you. Earth, while I am alive I depend on you.”
You may be familiar with this Christian children’s prayer: “Thank you, God, for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat. Thank you for the birds that sing; thank you, God, for everything.”
And the Sioux repeat the following (slightly edited for length): “I think about the common things like this pot. The bubbling water comes from the sky. The fire comes from the sun. The meat stands for our animal brothers who gave themselves so we should live. These things are sacred. Looking at that pot of good soup, I am thinking how, in this simple manner, the Great Spirit takes care of me.”
No matter how you celebrate, we hope your day is delicious in every possible way. Personally, I’m grateful for all the friends and family who’ve shared their table with me.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis writer with an appetite for food and culture. Reach her at email@example.com.