We generally think of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, and while it is specific to America to celebrate it on a specific date, there’s a long tradition of harvest-time celebrations and thanksgiving celebrations around the world.
What it has in common with the other cultures is that fact that each country on its own terms was at some time in the history at the point where the locals celebrated the fact that they had food and were healthy and alive. For example, in China, Egypt, Greece, and Russia there’s a tradition to celebrate the harvests.
Every fall, the ancient Greeks enjoyed a three-day festival to honor Demeter, the goddess of corn and grains. The Romans had a similar celebration in which they honored Ceres, the goddess of corn. The Roman celebration included music, parades, games, sports and a feast, much like modern Thanksgiving. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty common in other countries to give each other baskets filled with the fruits of the harvest – vegetables, dairy, fruits, meats and other goodies as a way to be thankful for what you have and share it with the ones who might have not had such luck in harvest. In ancient China they held a harvest festival called Chung Ch’ui to celebrate the harvest moon. Families would get together for a feast, which included round yellow cakes called “moon cakes,” and which is still very much present in the culture. As a matter of fact, so present that the foreign businesses that come to operate in China, write-in the ‘moon cake’ giving as a way to appreciate their Chinese employees.
In the Jewish culture, families also celebrate a harvest festival, Sukkot. This festival has been celebrated for 3,000 years by building a hut of branches called a Sukkot. Jewish families then eat their meals beneath the Sukkot under the night sky for eight days. The ancient Egyptians participated in a harvest festival in honor of Min, the god of vegetation and fertility.
In the British Isles, the Thanksgiving came to be from the harvest festival called Lammas Day, named for the Old English words for “loaf” and “mass.” On Lammas Day, everyone would come to church with a loaf of bread made from the first wheat harvest. The church would bless the bread, in thanks for that year’s harvest.
And the English Puritans set apart a practice that included religious activities like praising God in thanks for enduring a hardship, which is different from the American tradition, where Thanksgiving isn’t a religious occasion, but is rather an occasion to express the gratitude.
As you can see, all of these festivals have one common theme – it’s around sharing the food, the joy and the family/friend bonds. These festivals all have in common the festivities – the parades, festivals, music, sports, and games.
I’m not the first and the last person to write about it and the last thing I want to do is to ‘preach to the choir’ – or to describe the Thanksgiving customs and activities to the Americans. There’s absolutely nothing that an American doesn’t know about his/her traditional holiday that’s been in this country almost since the days of its discovery. Instead, I’d like to tell you stories from my own experience of being a foreigner, coming to America and immersing into the local traditions and holidays, like Thanksgiving and how the other foreign people I’ve met approached it.
This said, have you noticed how over the years Thanksgiving has changed?
Just the other day my friends and I were discussing the fact that there’s not such a thing as a ‘traditional thanksgiving dinner’ anymore because from year to year USA becomes more international than any other country in the world. There are now hundreds of the nationalities living in the country and each of these cultures have their own take on the local holidays and the feasts that come with it.
Personally, I’ve experienced it first hand – and not only because my family is Russian and our Thanksgiving dinners always included some Russian variations of the American dishes, but also because I’ve been always around other cultures in USA, having friends and colleagues from other parts of the world.
Surprisingly enough, my very first thanksgiving dinner was with a family, where a wife was an American and her husband was of the Spanish decent. He was my father’s colleague and I remember how they would invite our family for the Thanksgiving dinner at their house with all their family members and visiting relatives in presence, some of whom were Spanish.
I remember how a few dishes that I’ve tasted and really liked ended up to be the Spanish variations of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes, like a stuffing made with various kinds of chorizo (a Spanish word for a spicy sausage) and seasoned with some foreign spices and other dishes from his Spanish family secret recipes. I loved it.
I’ve been to Thanksgiving dinners where instead of the turkey, they’d cook a duck, which is very common to do in France.
As a matter of fact, I’ve been to the French-American Thanksgiving dinners before, where they’d stuff duck, instead of a turkey, with chestnuts,instead of the traditional stuffing.
Every time I experience such an international Thanksgiving dinner, I loved being a part of it. With so many particularities and unique customs – one can’t help it but open up one’s horizon.
My family has been this way as well. We’ve adopted the traditional dishes but we would always add a Russian touch to it, which I explore in more depth here.
The fact of the matter is that once you come to this country, you start to adopt to the local traditions, just as you would do by coming to any other foreign country. When I lived in Paris, for example, I’ve gotten to appreciate the local traditions, such as having a dinner at a particular time of the evening, the same time every day, which the family members should have abided to, because it’s a sacred time – the only time the family members are gathered all together. Or to the fact that each meal would come with a desert, which, in my culture is not as common thing to do.
The other day I was talking to my British friend, who told me that this Thanksgiving is going to be her very first Thanksgiving and that she’s in charge of the mashed potatoes. “How one can ruin the potatoes, right?”, – she jokingly tells me, but then adds – “I will make it my way, though…” Even the way we make mashed potatoes differs from a country to a country: from the kind of potatoes we use to the seasoning (or not) and butter (or not) we add to it.
However, no matter how different the dishes are, how many languages we speak at the table, or the music playing in the background – we all have one thing in common. Thanksgiving is the time to be together with our loved ones and friends and be thankful for what we have and what others might not have, especially in the time, where thousands of people lost their houses and family members in the hurricane Sandy. And this is what we all have in common – appreciating what and who we have in our lives.
Funny I’ve mentioned my family. They are no longer living in USA. They moved back to Germany last summer, and when I talked to them the other day, my mother joked that there’s no Thanksgiving in Germany and that she no longer will be spending hours cooking the Thanksgiving feast that usually took her for days to prepare. Instead, they will now celebrate all the local holidays – one of the things that happen to people when they move to another country – adopting and immersing into new customs and traditions, while letting go of the other ones.
They’ve never been American, so it’s acceptable, while with the American expats in Europe who come from USA – those tend to keep their native traditions, even when no one else in the country celebrates it. Wouldn’t it be a bit sad to go to work on a Thanksgiving day in, say, Athens and/or Brussels, while everyone else back home is off? I bet, that’d be, but then we don’t get the day off on The Assumption Day – which is a public holiday in countries such as Austria, Belgium, Chile, Croatia, France, parts of Germany, Guatemala, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland, do we?
Moreover, Thanksgiving day is not only about the family dinners, it’s the day for the street festivities, which in USA include the parades.
Some of the most popular and famous Thanksgiving parades in USA are: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (watch the video), Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade, McDonalds Thanksgiving Parade, New England Thanksgiving, Victorian Thanksgiving, Ford Holiday River Parade & Lighting Ceremony, Waikiki Holiday Parade, 6ABC IKEA Thanksgiving Day Parade, America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit and Macy’s Holiday Parade at Universal Orlando. Check for the local listings if you happen to be anywhere near these parades.
And to add some entertainment to our Thanksgiving this year, here are some of the most famous Thanksgiving movies: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Grumpy Old Men, The Ice Storm, Hannah and Her Sisters, Home for the Holidays, What’s Cooking? and one of my favorite of them all – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which, by the way, became part of my parents’ Thanksgiving tradition – we would, literally, watch, every year on Thanksgiving.
So, whats cooking in your kitchen this Thursday?