The Thanksgiving tradition in the U.S. traces its roots back to 1621 when colonists in Plymouth held a feast with the local native peoples after their first successful harvest in the new land. It was a three-day celebration that included giving thanks for the harvest and thanks to the natives for helping them through their first year in their new home. It’s a well-known fact that if the natives had not helped the pilgrims during their first winter—by offering them food and teaching them how to fish—the pilgrims would not have survived. In the spring, the natives introduced the colonists to corn. It would become a staple grain in American homes.
Thanksgiving has been celebrated sporadically since that first feast, but was officially designated a national holiday by President Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War. He declared it “a national day of thanksgiving and praise to God for all that He has given us.”
Although many people appreciate Thanksgiving because it’s a sectarian holiday and not tied to a specific religion, many others esteem Thanksgiving because it’s a way to offer thanks to the Divine. There’s an amusing story I once heard about a dog and cat that illustrates different attitudes of gratitude. It was told by Sant Rajinder Singh Ji during a Thanksgiving celebration:
“Thanksgiving is a time in which we can reflect on our gratitude to God for what has been created. There are some who live with such an attitude of gratitude. In this connection, there is an anecdote about a dog.
A dog thinks, “Hey, these people with whom I live feed me, love me, provide me with a warm house, pet me, and take good care of me. They must be gods!” On the other hand, a cat thinks, “Hey, these people with whom I live feed me, love me, provide me with a warm house, pet me, and take good care of me. I must be a god!”
We should have the attitude of the dog in the story that was grateful for what was being provided and not like the cat who thought it was deserving and did not remember its giver.”
As an American, I know how people in our country celebrate Thanksgiving, but during my research for this blog, I became surprised to learn that many countries around the world have their own day of giving thanks that is also tied to the harvest, and many are celebrated in the autumn.
There is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated in and outside of Israel. It is called the Sukkot or The Feast of the Booths (or Tabernacles). It commemorates the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt. It was originally considered thanksgiving for the fruit harvest, but now it is a celebration—and a time of gratitude—for a successful harvest.
In Canada, Thanksgiving Day or Jour de l’Action de Grâce is celebrated on the second Monday in October. Canadians give thanks for a bountiful harvest when families gather for large feasts.
In South Korea there is a harvest festival called Chuseok that is celebrated in mid to late September. It is a three-day festival, celebrated by people returning to hometowns to remember and give thanks to their ancestors. They offer foods from the harvest to their lost loved ones. Besides ancestor memorials, the time is celebrated with family feasts, wrestling, and traditional dancing.
The Vietnamese have their own festival day of thanks called Tết Trung-Thu held in August and it includes giving thanks for the harvest and family feasts. Children light lanterns and perform lion dances.
In Ghana, people hold the Homowo or Yam Festival in the month of May. This is a time to give thanks and rejoice when the crops are ready for harvest. Thousands gather in the streets for dancing, drumming, and face painting. Families celebrate by cooking yams in various ways: roasting, baking, boiling and adding them to various soups and stews.
Germans celebrate the Erntedankfest on the first Sunday in October with parades. This is a festival with a harvest queen, church services, choirs, speeches, lots of food, music and dancing, and fireworks.
In China and other parts of East Asia, the Moon Festival is celebrated in August. It has been held for more than 2500 years. It originated as a holiday to express gratitude for the changing seasons and to celebrate the fall harvest. Mooncakes are a special festival treat, eaten at picnics and dinners.
Japan has its own day of gratitude known as Kinrō Kansha no Hi, or Labor Thanksgiving Day, giving thanks for workers’ rights. This celebration traces its origins back 2000 years to a ritual giving thanks for the season’s first rice harvest. It officially became a holiday in 1948 and is celebrated in different ways throughout the country.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves who brought American customs with them to their new country, including Thanksgiving. On their Thanksgiving Day, there is typically a church service followed by family feasts. The typical meal includes mashed cassavas.
When enjoying your family feast on Thanksgiving Day, join the world in giving thanks for all that God has given you. Some families do this by saying a prayer of gratitude for the meal that is about to be eaten and then going around the table and asking each person to say something that they are grateful for.
-Mary Pomerantz for the Veggie Fest Team
Here are some suggested ideas for your vegan Thanksgiving feast: