In most traditional American Thanksgiving the whole family descends around the dinner table, eats until they burst, and watches football. Only after becoming a parent did I really begin to question “What’s Thanksgiving really about?” which is ironic since my family is South Asian American.
Growing up our Southern California Thanksgiving Day was a massive event. Extended family filled the house, conversation buzzed with football game scores, children’s laughter flowed constantly and flavors and aromas of food permeated every room. My mother prepared traditional dishes of mashed potatoes, turkey, green bean casserole, and sweet potatoes, alongside classic Indian dishes such as daal, naan, chicken, vegetable curries, and rice.
My family blended our American Thanksgiving celebration, recognizing the bounty of the harvest, with traditions from our Punjabi Harvest festival, Vaisaki, a religious festival celebrated by Hindus and Sikhs in April marking the completion of India’s wheat harvest. We would incorporate the food, traditional bhangra dance and singing to the tunes of the dhol (drum) into our Thanksgiving day as both traditions focus on gratitude, food, abundance and family.
As a mother raising my young son and daughter as South Asian Americans in the US during a historic cultural watershed, I view it as my responsibility and privilege to teach them about both Thanksgiving and Vaisakhi, holidays that honor concepts that are vital for our communities and for our country as a whole.
This year, I’m taking that commitment further with a World of thanksgiving to show my children that every culture has unique traditions honoring the harvest – because the harvest sustains life. Harvest festivals occur at different times of the year depending on their seasonality but the seeds for the celebration spring from the same concept of gratitude for abundance. Here are a few we are learning about this year:
The Kadazan Festival celebrated in Malaysia in May
Malaysians believe that “without rice there is no life.” The Kadazan Festival, commonly known as the rice festival is celebrated in May. The people of Malaysia believe the grain holds the spirit of life and creation, and consider rice as an extension of the Creator and the source of thriving life and existence on Earth.
A bright festival filled with rice wine, buffalo races, and agricultural shows, Kadazan Festival is a beautiful day of giving thanks to the Creator who made the people’s most-prized staple of life.
Chuseok Harvest Festival celebrated in Korea in September – October
The harvest festival this year was September 30th- October 1st and is commercially known as the Korean Thanksgiving. It is one of the biggest holidays in Korea.
Aside from the usual Thanksgiving traditions such as partying with friends and family, people return to their ancestor’s hometowns and hold memorials at relative’s gravesites. Family and Friends celebrate with activities that include archery, music, and singing folk music.
Along with Songp’yon (traditional rice cakes), toran-t’ang (taro soup), and song-i (mushrooms), people celebrate with dishes made from the freshly harvested rice. Chuseok is a special time for spreading happiness and togetherness to those you love.
Festival of the Yams celebrated in Ghana in August or September
Homowo is an African festival dedicated to the hopefulness that the crops will be plentiful for the coming year. It usually is celebrated in August or September, but this year it was in October and lasted the whole month!
The tradition of Homowo started in the Greater Accra Region, where the Ga people predominantly dwell. It began as a celebration of rain and abundance after a period of hunger and famine due to a drought.
Families are brought together, thrilled, and hopeful. During this harvest festival, the villages rejoice by dancing and singing with animal masks, acknowledging the end of the rainy season, and desiring a fruitful harvest. Everyone in the village then comes together and shares prized yams/maize dishes.
Erntedankfest celebrated in Germany in October
Erntedankfest, the “Thanksgiving Day” in Germany was celebrated on Sunday, October 4th, 2020. Like most Thanksgiving traditions, Erntedankfest is centered on giving thanks for the year’s harvest and grain. There are multiple church services throughout the day, giant woven baskets filled with fruits, grains, and vegetables are carried to the church, blessed, and then distributed to the poor.
In the middle of the day, there are laternenumzüge (lantern parades), primarily for the children, hosted in the evenings.
The celebratory food is much the same as Thanksgiving Day food consumed in America; however, the Germans have mohnstriezel, sweet bread sprinkled with poppy seed, And, rouladen, red cabbage, and potato dumplings with lots and lots of wonderful rouladen gravy.
Harvest Moon Festival / Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated in China, Taiwan, Vietnam in August.
The Moon Festival is one of the most important traditional holidays in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It is the celebration of the harvest festival when the moon is the brightest and the fullest. This three-day celebration takes place in the middle of the autumn season and coincides with the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.
Nowadays, the people of China are much more accustomed to “appreciating the moon,” which is the practice of gathering around a table, talking, and eating. Ceremonies are held both to give thanks for the harvest and to encourage the harvest-giving light to return again in the coming year.
It is a time of family gatherings, matchmaking, and public celebrations. Reflecting on the importance of togetherness, families eat delicious round, semi-sweet pastries called mooncakes while the children dance and play with festival lanterns.
Sukkot celebrated in Israel in September – October
This biblical holiday, celebrated on the 15th day of Tishrei (between late September and late October), is a time where Jewish people reflect on the struggle of Israelites during their 40-year travel through the desert after the exodus from slavery in Egypt.
The word sukkot means “booths,” which refers to the name of the temporary dwellings celebrators live in to remember the “period of wandering.” However, the holiday also holds agricultural meaning and celebrates the annual harvest that provides sustenance for all the people.
Pongal is celebrated in South India in January.
A time for giving thanks to nature in South India is the four-day festival of Pongal in January! It is the rice harvest period, it celebrates the return of longer days of life-giving sunlight. It is similar to other festivals held in South and Southeast Asia, also called Thai Pongal, Thai being the name for January in the Tamil calendar is celebrated mainly by Tamil-speaking people.
The first day is paying homage to Lord Indra, people celebrate his generosity in providing water for their crops and bringing prosperity to all. The second day is a puja/ prayer where rice is boiled in milk and offered to the sun god and other delicacies are made from sugar, coconut, and bananas. The third day is the day of the cows, they are adorned with decorations, beads, corn, and flowers. They were jingling bells in the cow signifying the time for celebration. The entire city has one giant party!
As we get ready to celebrate a different kind of Thanksgiving this year, I will be reflecting on the many ways that different cultures give thanks. There are so many various cultures and traditions that bring people together. These celebrations of the harvest also remind us to give thanks to nature, to reflect in prayer and to truly appreciate the abundance of our world.
Let’s start by taking advantage of the time of Thanksgiving to teach our children, the next generation of global citizens about gratitude and giving thanks all year long.