Americans are well versed in the so-called history of Thanksgiving, said to have kicked off with a shared, much-debated feast between the Plymouth colonists and native Wampanoag tribe in 1621. More than a century later, the holiday was declared a day of observance by George Washington in 1789 and then became an official national holiday at the behest of Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
While its historical origins are problematic (to say the least), the holiday’s focus on gratitude, abundance, community, family, and food continues to prevail. In fact, as few Americans are likely aware, Thanksgiving is commemorated in various forms around the world, with some countries putting a twist on the turkey-filled holiday we know and love, and others celebrating a similar concept under different names and traditions, many of them much older than the United States. Here's a rundown of how Thanksgiving appears in seven other locales.
Why would the people of the Netherlands celebrate this American holiday? Because a hearty chunk of Pilgrims spent their pre-Mayflower years in the city of Leiden, where they were likely influenced by the Drie Oktober celebrations of a 1574 military victory over Spain. Nowadays, the Dutch Protestant church commemorates Dankdag, a "thanks day" for crop and labor, on the first Wednesday of November. The Americanized version is celebrated on the traditional fourth Thursday of the month with services at the Pieterskerk, a historic church frequented by the Pilgrims, while meals of turkey and sweet potatoes have become increasingly popular among regional residents in recent years.
This former British penal colony, sitting some 9,000 miles from Plymouth Rock in the South Pacific Ocean, became an unlikely forum for Thanksgiving festivities thanks to the efforts of American trader and consul Isaac Robinson. Seeking to lure American whalers to the remote outpost's shores in the 1890s, Robinson proposed decorating All Saints Church in the island's capital of Kingston to note the holiday. He died shortly afterward, but his vision survives with a decidedly regional flavor: Celebrated on the fourth Wednesday of November, a Norfolk Island Thanksgiving is marked by the presence of corn stalks in the All Saints Church pews, along with feasts that include various banana dishes, pork, chicken, and pumpkin pie.
The Japanese celebration of Kinro Kansha no Hi, which translates to “Labor Thanksgiving Day,” falls on November 23 annually. While it’s always around the same time as American Thanksgiving, the two holidays differ in spirit and practice. The Japanese version is based on the centuries-old festival of Niiname-sai, in which the emperor offered crops to the Shinto deities and sampled the year's rice harvest. Since 1948, Kinro Kansha no Hi has been designated as a time to commemorate the hard work of the citizens who help maintain Japan's status as a global power. As such, many of the day's events are sponsored by labor organizations, while children are encouraged to make cards and gifts for municipal employees like policemen and firefighters.
As many New World-bound Pilgrims were exposed to the customs of Sephardic Jews during their Leiden years, Jewish scholars have argued that the roots of Thanksgiving can be found in Sukkot, a week-long holiday of thanks and remembrance. One of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Sukkot commences on the 15th day of the fall month of Tishrei and is marked by the omnipresent outdoor huts that evoke the shelters of the Israelites who spent 40 years in the desert after escaping Egypt. Observers are instructed to eat their meals in their sukkah and to partake in prayers that include shaking the four species (or kinds) of vegetation, with designated segments of the holiday differing in length for Jews outside of Israel.
A commemoration of the year's harvest, Erntedankfest is a religious event that often falls on the first Sunday of October, although its date varies throughout the German-speaking regions of Europe. The holiday typically gets underway with church services, featuring altars piled with wheat, seasonal produce, and bread loaves, before participants enjoy more jubilant activities like singing, dancing, and parading. Feasting is also prominently featured in the celebrations, and while turkey is sometimes consumed, revelers are more likely to indulge in local poultry like masthühnchen (chicken) or kapaun (rooster).
Observed on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, Chuseok is a three-day holiday that coincides with the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. As with its American counterpart, Chuseok is typically a time of family gatherings, though participants take this one step further by visiting the gravesites of ancestors. It's also a time to celebrate the abundance of food, with rice cakes known as “songpyeon” replacing turkey as the holiday's go-to dish. And just as the day would be incomplete for many Americans without watching football or the Thanksgiving parade on TV, Koreans get to enjoy their holiday spectacles through performances of traditional circle dances and wrestling matches.
India and Sri Lanka
The Tamil people of south India, Sri Lanka, and surrounding regions stretch their harvest celebrations of Pongal into a four-day affair in mid-January. The first day, known as Bhogi Pongal, commences with the cleansing of household clutter and giving thanks to the Hindu deity Indra for bringing rain. The second day, called Surya Pongal, features singing and the offering of a rice-milk mixture to Surya, the sun god. This is followed by Mattu Pongal, which sees cows decorated with beads and bells and paraded through town, before the closing day's activities of Kaanum Pongal, marked by the gathering of family and friends and the placement of leftover food on turmeric leaves.