Thanksgiving in the United States resembles festivals around the world
Like its cousins Sukkot, Chuseok, Day of the Dead, and others, Thanksgiving focuses on giving thanks for the harvest, enjoying abundant food, and spending time with family and friends. Harvest festivals began in an agrarian age when crop yields could mean the difference between life and death.
“You can eat and celebrate without having to starve all winter, and it’s time to celebrate after the harvest,” says John Turner, professor of religious studies and history at George Mason University in Virginia.
Unlike other celebrations, Thanksgiving focuses on an American origin story. In 1621, the Pilgrims were new to the land, and members of the Wampanoag tribe who taught the Pilgrims how to grow the crops they needed to survive shared what is considered the first Thanksgiving meal. In recent years, Americans have become more aware of the contributions of the Wampanoag and also that the holiday did not fully represent the relationship between the English settlers and the Wampanoag and other native tribes – it followed nearly 100 years of contact with other Europeans. and the decimation of many tribes through strife and disease.
Even at the first Thanksgiving meal, settlers and natives were suspicious of each other, Turner points out.
“By 1675 the relationship had degenerated into conflict and war,” according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (PDF, 4.3 MB). “That would be the story of most Native-non-Native relations for the next two hundred years.”
Over the centuries, Americans, like people in other countries, have periodically celebrated when fall crop yields were bountiful and also marked religious days of thanksgiving for the blessings of their lives – such as the end of drought, recovery from illness or victory. In the battle.
It wasn’t until 1863, during Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. The day “was meant to celebrate America, to be a rite of unification,” says Lucy Long, director of the Center for Food and Culture in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Here are some of Thanksgiving’s global cousins:
- Chuseok, Korea is a massive harvest festival that features fall foods like persimmon, chestnuts, and rice cakes called songpyeon. “These are seasonal foods in that we in the United States have pumpkin, corn, and apples,” Long says. South Koreans head to their ancestral homes to be with family during the three-day vacation. As in the United States, this is one of the busiest travel times of the year.
- Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico began as an Aztec tradition but now coincides with the Catholic day of All Saints. Families spend time together making food offerings to honor and connect with their ancestors.
- Sukkot is celebrated by Jews around the world to mark the Biblical-era Israelites’ decades in the wilderness, says Rachelle “Riki” Saltzman, senior lecturer in people’s life at the University of Oregon. Like Thanksgiving, Sukkot celebrates the harvest and the past. “It enacts ‘This is who we are as a people,'” she adds.
Today, Americans see Thanksgiving as a day to be with their extended family, Turner says. They watch parades and football games, shop at pre-holiday sales, donate to charity and partake in homemade feasts. In America’s melting pot, many immigrant families bring their own traditional foods (like Laotian rice or enchiladas) to accompany traditional turkey and harvest vegetables. The heart of vacation, says Turner, is family.