Please pass the mashed potatoes, masthühnchen or plantains

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November 25, 2020

While the details vary greatly, many countries celebrate an autumn festival based on giving thanks for bountiful harvests and celebrating feasts with friends and family.

In the US, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, commemorating the original fall feast in the fall of 1621, when Pilgrims celebrated their bountiful harvest with a three-day feast of partridge, wild turkey, and fish with the Massasoit and Wampanoag Native American tribes. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Canada’s first Thanksgiving celebration predates America’s—by more than 40 years. In 1578, an expedition led by the English navigator Martin Frobisher held a ceremony in what is now Nunavut, giving thanks for the safety of their fleet. This is considered the first-ever Thanksgiving celebration in North America, though the indigenous peoples of Canada and Native Americans had been holding harvest festivals long before Europeans arrived. Thanksgiving traditions in Canada look very similar to American ones, including eating turkey and watching the Canadian Football League’s annual Thanksgiving Day Classic with family.

The German equivalent of Thanksgiving is Erntedankfest (“harvest festival of thanks”) with different regions marking the occasion on various dates in September and October. Though rural areas take the harvest festival concept more literally, churches in German cities also join in on the celebration, giving thanks for the good fortune their congregations experienced that year. Celebrants may carry an Erntekrone (“harvest crown”) of grains, fruit and flowers to the church in a solemn procession, and feast on such hearty fare as die Masthühnchen (fattened-up chickens).

In the early 1880s, Liberia’s government passed an act declaring the first Thursday of November as National Thanksgiving Day. Today, it’s a largely Christian holiday: Churches auction off baskets filled with local fruits like papayas and mangoes after their services, and local families feast on the bounty. Instead of turkey and pumpkin, Liberia’s Thanksgiving tables boast items such as spicy roast chicken and mashed cassavas, and live music and dancing are part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

Japan’s Kinro Kansha no Hi (Labor Thanksgiving Day) evolved from an ancient rice harvest festival, Niinamesai, the roots of which go back as far as the seventh century A.D. During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the date of the festival was set as November 23, and it has remained the same since then. The modern tradition of Labor Thanksgiving Day began in 1948 as a celebration of the rights of Japan’s workers. Today, labor organizations lead events that encourage citizens to celebrate hard work and community involvement. To mark the occasion, children often make thank-you cards for policemen, firefighters, or other municipal workers.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the most-important traditional holidays in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, is the celebration of the harvest, also known as the Moon Festival because it coincides with the full moon. Special delicacies called “mooncakes” are shared and ceremonies are held to give thanks for the harvest and to encourage the harvest-giving light to return in the coming year. It is a time of family gatherings, matchmaking, and public celebrations.

Every October 25, the West Indian island of Granada celebrates Thanksgiving Day, which marks the anniversary of a joint Caribbean and U.S. military invasion of Grenada in 1983. The troops’ arrival restored order after an army coup ousted and executed Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s socialist leader. While stationed on the West Indian island that fall, U.S. soldiers told local citizens about the upcoming American holiday. To show their own gratitude, many people in towns and villages hosting the soldiers invited them to dine and celebrate with them.

The Dutch city of Leiden in the Netherlands was home to nearly half of the English settlers who traveled to the New World on the Mayflower. Some historians think that the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving celebration was inspired by Leiden’s annual commemoration of the breaking of the Spanish siege in 1574 which was celebrated with great feasts. Today, Leiden continues to celebrate their ties with the Mayflower’s passengers by holding non-denominational church services on the fourth Thursday of November.

After Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in the late 19th century, its residents enthusiastically adopted many of the traditions of the holiday. They celebrate it on the same day (fourth Thursday in November) but Puerto Ricans have put their own twist on the traditional feast: There is usually turkey—whether a roasted, seasoned pavochón, or a turkey stuffed with mofongo (a mashed plantain dish)—but roast pork is also a common item on the menu, accompanied with more plaintains, rice and beans.

Liberia celebrates a variation on America's Thanksgiving on the first Thursday of November. Liberians fill their churches with baskets of local fruits like bananas, papayas, mangoes, and pineapples; an auction for the baskets is held after the service, and then families retreat to their homes to feast.

On Norfolk Island, a small and remote Pacific Island, an American trader Isaac Robinson proposed decorating the All Saints Church with palm leaves and lemons, hoping to attract whalers to a Thanksgiving service/celebration. On the last Wednesday of November, families bring fruit and vegetables to the church to celebrate, tying cornstalks to pews, and decorating the altar with fresh flowers.

In Argentina, on the final Sunday of February, the Archbishop of Mendoza sprinkles the season’s first grapes with holy water and offers the new vintage to God, setting off a month of celebrations in Argentina’s Mendoza region. Crowds line the streets to watch a parade of beauty queens atop their regional floats, and the festival culminates with a spectacular show and a Harvest Queen crowned.

Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, is celebrated in Bali, where rice is the staple crop. During the harvest, villages are festooned with flags, and simple bamboo temples dedicated to the goddess are erected in the rice fields and small dolls of rice stalks representing Dewi Sri are placed in granaries as offerings.

Chanthaburi, Thailand, celebrates the fruit harvest during the annual Fruit Fair which includes exhibits of fruits in vibrant arrangements as elaborate as Buddhist mandalas. There are produce competitions and art displays, and the opening-day parade features floats made from thousands of tropical fruits and vegetables.

Sukkot in Israel celebrates bountiful harvests and recalls the time when the Israelites wandered the desert living in temporary shelters. Families build makeshift huts, or sukkah, with roofs open to the sky. Here they eat, and sometimes sleep, for the next seven days. Wands of willow, myrtle, and palm, together with a citron (a kind of lemon), are shaken every day in all directions to honor the gifts from the land.

In Italy, Magione’s two-day festival in November celebrates both the feast day of St. Clement and the local olive harvest, bringing together everyone involved in the production of olive oil. A priest blesses the new oil at a special Mass, and the town hosts a lavish dinner for all residents.

Lammas Festival, United Kingdom marks the beginning of the harvest season, when food is abundant and the light begins to wane. Early Britons baked bread from the new crop to leave on church altars, and corn dolls decorated bounteous feast tables.

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