A selection of autumn squash, Toronto, Canada (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November and in Canada on the second Monday in October, each holiday originally celebrating plentiful harvests. In the case of the US, the holiday commemorates a harvest shared by European settlers and Native Americans in 1621, although the day wasn't recognized as an official holiday until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln designated it as such. In Canada, Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a harvest festival in 1578 by explorer Martin Frobisher, but wasn't officially recognized until 1957. Many countries around the world also celebrate a version of Thanksgiving, not only to mark the end of the harvest, but to show gratitude to their communities, to nature, to their ancestors and deities, and for all the hard work throughout the year dedicated to planting, growing, tending to and gathering the crops.
Homowo Harvest Celebration in Ghana (photo courtesy of http://easytrackghana.com/)
In the US and Canada, the day is subdued, with the focus on family and friend get-togethers, with a large meal that includes such traditional foods as roast turkey, bread or corn stuffing, mashed potatoes and root vegetables, green beans, pumpkin pie and whipped cream, followed by a walk or football-watching. In other countries, the holiday is typically more festive or more religious, and may include music, dance, local parades, costumes and meals centered around locally produced fruits, vegetables and grains.
Africa: harvest celebrations generally center on grains or sweet potatoes (yams) and involve several days of parties, dancing, ceremonies and meals. In August, residents of West Africa celebrate the Yam Festival, to give thanks for a bumper crop of yams. In other African areas, harvest festivals are often remembrances of the end of famines or long migrations, such as the Ghanaian Homowo Festival (also known as the Hunger Hooting Festival). Foods like yams, fish, ko (similar to grits, but made with palm oil) and palm nut soup are part of the festivities.
Floating, brightly lit lanterns celebrate the Harvest Moon Festival in Hong Kong (photo courtesy of http://www.chanychan.com/)
China: the ancient holiday known as Zhong Qiu Jie (Harvest Moon or Mid-Autumn Festival) is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, when the moon is considered to be at its fullest and brightest. This is thought to be the ideal time to start, renew or strengthen friendships and romantic relationships. Family and friends come together to revel in a spirit of completeness and abundance with parties and family gatherings decorated with brightly colored lanterns.The traditional food served is the Moon Cake, a sweet yellow cake traditionally filled with lotus seed paste, but now filled with everything from nuts and dried fruits to Chinese style sausages and egg yolks. Other traditional foods are naturally red or colored red for good luck and may include lobster, salmon, pomegranates, peanuts and fatt koh (sweet steamed rice cake).
A Kolache pastry commonly eaten during the Czech harvest festival, Posviceni (photo courtesy of http://bramborov.bloguje.cz/)
Czech Republic: Czechs celebrate two ancient festivals known as Posviceni and Obzinky, both held at the end of the harvest. The wheat, corn and rye sheaves from the harvest are considered especially lucky, with curative and fertility powers, and are often woven into wreaths with wildflowers to be given to new new mothers or brides and grooms. After the post-harvest ceremonies, the harvest feast, called Obzinky Oldomas, is prepared and served and includes foods such as sauerkraut, roast pig or goose, and prune-filled pastries called kolaches.
Barbados: this Caribbean island definitely has the most descriptive, simple and least confusing name for its harvest festival. It comes right to the point: Crop Over. Parties, cane-cutting contests, dancing, parades and concerts are widespread. Festival goers enjoy foods such as roti (a kind of Bajan burrito), flying fish, cutters (rolls stuffed with meat or cheese, coconut bread and desserts, cou-cou (cornmeal and okra pudding) and of course, lots of rum punch!
Crop Over Festival celebrations, Barbados (photo courtesy of http://www.jaunted.com/)