Thanksgiving Traditions and History
Over the centuries, many thanksgiving traditions have originated from different countries all over the world celebrating their gratitude for rich harvests.
There was an ancient belief that crops enclosed spirits that caused them to grow and die. It was believed that when the crops would be harvested, these spirits would be released. There were harvest festivals celebrated for defeating these crop spirits.
In this section about thanksgiving traditions, we’ve brought together different thanksgiving traditions from around the world.
Thanksgiving History in the United States
Thanksgiving, also commonly known as “Turkey Day”, is a harvest time celebration. It started out as a deeply religious event, a time where God is thanked for plenty of harvest. Over the years this holiday has been somewhat secularized and is celebrated today in many places as a holiday for giving thanks for having such loving friends and family, and for all kinds of things in life.
The U.S. Thanksgiving History started with the Pilgrims. They were a group of English religious separatists who sailed to North America from Europe; searching for a home they could practice their style of religion freely. On September 6, 1620, they set sail on a ship called the Mayflower, bound to get to the “New World” (The Americas).
Popular belief has it that Plymouth Rock was the site of the original colony; this is known as false, when they arrived to Plymouth Rock, the natives greeted them with much hostility. They continued a bit further south and landed in Cape Cod where the natives were much friendlier. In this friendly area is where they decided to create their colony.
That same winter was very harsh; almost half of their original colonists were killed. In the Spring of 1621, Squanto (from the Patuxtet Trive) and Samoset (from the Wampanoag Tribe), helped the colonists out and taught them how to survive. They taught them how to catch certain fish, how to hunt, how to tap maple trees for sap, how to plant corn (maize), etc. Even though the peas, wheat and barley crops grew poorly; it was expected that the corn and pumpkin crop would be ample.
William Bradford, the Governor at the time, decided to arrange a harvest festival at the beginning of Autumn to give thanks and recognize the help the Indians had given. This harvest festival lasted 3 days. The food included turkeys, geese, ducks, venison, cod, bass, corn, barley, and corn bread. From what is known from popular Thanksgiving history, there were games, races and demonstrations of skills with bows, arrows, and muskets. It is assumed that the feast took place in late autumn.
This celebration came to be a one-time event (it wasn’t repeated a year later). It was however repeated again briefly in 1623 when there was a very severe drought. All of the Pilgrims gathered and prayed for rain. Luckily, it rained the very next day and Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving.
Only 53 years later, in 1676, was another celebration of Thanksgiving Day. The governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on June 29, to express their thanks for the good fortune their community had securely established. This chapter of Thanksgiving history was a bit different from the first two, as it didn’t include the Indians, and was meant partly to give recognition to the colonist’s and their victories. With all of the good intent that this would be an official event, it too was also a one-time celebration.
In October of 1777, the 13 colonies joined in another one-time celebration of thanksgiving. It was also to commemorate their patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga.
Around 1789 after the Revolutionary war, George Washington, president of the time, proclaimed ‘a day of thanks’. This still was not an official national day, but became popular with certain states, cities and towns, who started to pick it up as some particular day every year (around autumn time). There were also people going through many hardships who were against having a day for thanks. Later on, Thomas Jefferson was against and scoffed at the idea of a thanksgiving day.
By the time of the Civil War, this day of thanks had become a very popular event. Sarah Josepha Hale who was a magazine editor had written many editorials and letters to governors about the concept of the “day of thanks”. Her strong and obsessive efforts paid off, and around the end of 1863, President Lincoln, proclaimed a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father” – the last Thursday in November.
In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the date a week later. He wanted to make a longer Christmas season for the retail industry (there were those who were against the break of tradition; this change was thought to give merchants more time to sell goods before Christmas, and as Roosevelt hoped would help bring the country out of the Depression).
The final chapter of this Thanksgiving history is that in 1941, Congress changed the holiday permanently to the 4th Thursday of November.
That sums up this recap of Thanksgiving history in the United States.
Thanksgiving Traditions from Around the World
If we trace way back to the ancient Greeks, we recall their harvest festival called “Thesmosphoria”, which honored the goddess of grains, Demeter, each and every autumn. On the third day of the festival they would offer the goddess Demeter gifts of fruit, cakes, corn, etc. and hoped that their gratitude to Demeter would reward them with a rich harvest.
The ancient Romans had their own thanksgiving traditions and harvest festival, which they called “Cerelia”. This was a festival that honored their goddess of corn, Ceres (a nice thing to remember, the word “cereal” comes from the word “Ceres”). Throughout this festival there were games, music, sports, parades and fruits and harvest were offered to the Goddess Ceres.
The ancient Egyptians also had their own thanksgiving traditions. They believed that there was a spirit that lived in their corn. When they harvested their corn they pretended to be grief-stricken and wept so to try and deceive the spirit. The ancient Egyptians honored their god of vegetation and fertility, Min, with their own harvest festival. Different from other festivals, the Egyptian’s festival was held during the springtime (the harvest season for the Egyptians). The Pharaoh would take part in a parade and later hold a great feast where dancing, music, and sports were all part of the celebration.
The ancient Chinese celebrated “Chung Ch’ui”, their three-day harvest festival, which would come with the full moon that fell on the fifteenth day of the eighth month (the day considered as the moon’s birthday). Their belief is that during the festival, flowers would fall from the moon and whoever would see the flowers would have good fortune. During this time, families sit down to have a Thanksgiving meal with harvested fruits, a roasted pig, and most traditional “moon cakes”, which are round and yellow like the moon.
The Jews also celebrate thanksgiving traditions during their harvest festival that last for seven days, called “Sukkot”. Sukkot is also known as “Hag HaAsif”, which means “The Festival of Ingathering”. The word “Sukkot” is plural for the word “sukkah”, which is a hut that is easy to assemble and take apart, made from branches. A sukkah was known to be the huts the ancient Israelites lived in during their 40 years of dwelling in the desert. Nowadays, fruits and decorations are hung in the sukkah. On the first two nights of the Sukkot holiday, families sit inside the sukkah and eat together.
England had festivities where it was a custom to choose a “Harvest Queen” who was decorated with grains and fruits. Then on Thanksgiving Day, the Harvest Queen would parade through the streets in a carriage that was drawn by white horses.
Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on a different day than in the US, on the second Monday in October (the observance of the day began in 1879). Canadians sometimes call the Thanksgiving in the US as “Yanksgiving” to distinguish it from the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday and their own thanksgiving traditions.