Some could argue that Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. Each year, we celebrate by eating American dishes like macaroni and cheese, turkey, and green bean casserole, all while enjoying American pastimes like football and watching the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. So you might be surprised to learn that there are variations of Thanksgiving celebrated by people around the world to give thanks and commemorate the harvest in their respective countries.
In fact, the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America took place in Canada and not the United States. In addition to Canada, countries like Brazil, Japan, the Netherlands, and India all have their own versions of Thanksgiving. The tradition of a yearly harvest and thanking the Earth for providing for its people is undoubtedly an idea that goes beyond borders. Even the football and turkey-based Thanksgiving we know today is slightly different from how the holiday started. Many aspects of Thanksgiving that we know today have been whitewashed from what historians think really happened on that first Thanksgiving, which included the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans sharing an autumn harvest feast that didn’t even include turkey or dessert.
So if you’re looking to get closer to the true meaning behind Thanksgiving, you might be able to learn something from the people who celebrate their own Thanksgiving around the world.
1. The Netherlands
If you’ve attended any American history class, you’ve probably heard of the first group of pilgrims that came over from England on the Mayflower and landed in Plymouth rock in 1620. But you might not know that a lot of those pilgrims actually resided in Leiden, the Netherlands, for 11 years before they arrived in England.
Today there is an annual celebration in Leiden in honor of these pilgrims, and it takes place every year on American Thanksgiving. The main celebration takes place in a church called Pieterskerk, which is known as the church of the Pilgrim Fathers, where there is an annual Thanksgiving service. But, you can also find traditional Thanksgiving meals in restaurants across the country.
Canada beats the U.S. in more ways than one when it comes to Thanksgiving. Not only did their first Thanksgiving celebration happen almost 40 years before the first American Thanksgiving, but the holiday is celebrated more than a month before today’s American festivities. Canadian Thanksgiving occurs on the second Monday in October each year and is celebrated similarly to American Thanksgiving.
Most Canadians celebrate the weekend before by enjoying a meal with family that includes dishes like turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and Brussels sprouts. There is also a nationally televised football doubleheader called the Thanksgiving Day Classic, which is a popular Thanksgiving Day activity.
According to historians, Japan’s version of Thanksgiving, Kinro Kansha no Hi (Labor Thanksgiving Day), has roots in an ancient rice harvest festival called Niinamesai. While the holiday began as a way to celebrate the harvest, it eventually transformed into a holiday to commemorate the workers who helped the harvest happen. Both the Americans and the Japanese use the day to focus on what they’re grateful for, but Japanese Labor Thanksgiving Day is specifically about being thankful for the hard work of devoted workers.
The celebration of Labor Thanksgiving Day revolves less around food and more around thanking those who work hard to keep the country running smoothly. School children will sometimes write thank you notes to firefighters, police officers, and other municipal workers who help keep them safe.
Every January in southern India, many people celebrate Pongal, a four-day harvest festival that celebrates the harvest of crops like rice, turmeric, and sugarcane. Versions of Pongal are celebrated throughout different parts of India. But in southern India, Pongal is an important Hindu festival that celebrates each of the four days differently.
The first day is celebrated with the Bhogi festival, which honors Lord Indra, the god of rain. On this day, people toss unused or unwanted belongings in a large fire to signify the disposal of old habits and attachments to material goods. On the second day, a dish made with sweet rice, turmeric, and milk, also called Pongal, is prepared. Additionally, a traditional form of drawing called Kolam is done outside of entryways in order to bring good luck and success to each home.
The third day, Mattu Pongal, is celebrated in honor of any cows. The townspeople will decorate village cattle in floral garlands and bells. Finally, on the last day, Kaanum Pongal, leftover Pongal (the dish) from the second day of the festivities, is placed on a clean turmeric leaf by any woman to ask for their brothers’ prosperity.
In Brazil, Thanksgiving is called the Dia de Ação de Graças. According to its origin story, Brazilian Thanksgiving began after a Brazilian ambassador returned to Brazil from the United States in the 1940s. The ambassador enjoyed the celebration of Thanksgiving so much that he told the president at the time, Gaspar Dutra, all about it. So on August 17, 1949, President Dutra instituted the Dia de Ação de Graças to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. The celebration isn’t considered a Brazilian holiday. Still, some Brazilians and many Americans who live in Brazil, as well as some Protestants, take the day to remember what they’re grateful for.
Wherever you are in the world, you probably have something to be grateful for. So whether you’re in Brazil, India, Japan, Canada, The Netherlands, the United States, or anywhere else in the world, we hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, whatever it looks like. If you’re curious about some other harvest festivals around the world, you can learn about a few more in Italy, China, and Korea, as well as this harvest festival celebrated by Jewish people around the world. No matter where or how you’re celebrating, happy Thanksgiving!