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Thanksgiving is an Enduring Multicultural Tradition

Date: Nov 06, 2013
The American Thanksgiving holiday began as a feast of thanks in the early days of the American colonies. It originated from a mix of European and Native American traditions that celebrated communal harmony and a bountiful harvest. Both the Separatists and the Puritans brought with them a tradition of providential holidays: days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of indulgence and celebration to thank God in times of plenty. Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and games centuries before their arrival.

George Washington formally recognized the holiday in 1789.  At the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November. It was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan was unsuccessful. In 1941 he signed a bill declaring it the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving is a festival that spans cultures, continents and millennia. Its roots can be traced to the ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian civilizations. The Greeks honored Demeter, the goddess of grains during Thesmophria. The Roman festival of Cerelia honored Ceres, the goddess of Corn. Egyptians honored the god of vegetation and fertility, Min. The ancient Chinese celebrated “Chung Ch’ui”, a three-day harvest festival.

Continuing today, cultures celebrate thanks for a plentiful harvest.  Although these are observed with different names, customs, and traditions they all have the common theme of gratitude.

India is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural country united in its diversity. Most Hindu festivals are directly or indirectly linked to agriculture and related activities.  Pongal is an ancient festival celebrated in South India. It can be considered the Tamil equivalent of Thanksgiving. It is celebrated during the same time as other harvest festivals including ‘Bhogali Bihu’ in the North Eastern State of Assam, Lohri in Punjab, ‘Bhogi’ in Andhra Pradesh and ‘Makar Sankranti’ in the rest of the country. Thanksgiving is observed by Christians in the state of Goa.

In Vietnam, Tet Trung Thu is a combination of Halloween and Thanksgiving.  In Vietnamese folklore, parents worked so hard during the harvest that they sometimes neglected their children. To remedy this, activities stressing family solidarity and unity were celebrated. This tradition continues today.

The Japanese celebrate Kinro Kansha No Hi, a modern name for an ancient ritual called Niinamesai (Harvest Festival). It is the National Labor and Thanksgiving Day. Many people visit their local shrine or temple to give thanks for production, harvests, and each other.

In German speaking countries, Thanksgiving is an autumn harvest festival called Erntedank. The typical German, Austrian or Swiss thanksgiving celebration is usually a rural harvest time observance with church services, a parade, music, and a country fair atmosphere. In larger cities, churches sponsor Erntedankfest.

Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated in October to coincide with the end of the harvest season. The first Thanksgiving celebration in North America took place in Newfoundland 43 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. Martin Frobrisher, an explorer from England held a feast in commemorating his safe arrival to the New World.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are reminded that we are part of a global tradition.

The universal message of Thanksgiving may be summed up by this quote from John F Kennedy “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

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