10 Cultural Variations on Thanksgiving

A South Korean Thanksgiving dish

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Thanksgiving is defined by oversized meals with family or close friends (not to mention football games, parades, and other modern additions). Historians still debate the origin of American Thanksgiving, but the most common narrative attributes it to early North American pilgrims, who held feasts to celebrate successful harvests. The concept of celebrating agricultural success dates back much further than the 17th century. Ancient Greeks, South Asians, and Celts all marked harvest holidays.

So Thanksgiving-like holidays aren't unique to the United States. Some of these fests, such as Canada's early-October Thanksgiving, closely resemble the Fourth Thursday in November. Other harvest festivals are quite different. They may last for days and feature solemn traditions or pop-music-fueled street parties (or both). Most of these days focus on eating (or overeating).

Here are several examples of other "Thanksgivings" from around the world.

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Canadian Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving takes place on the second Monday in October in Canada. Canadians celebrate it as part of a three-day weekend. It's a holiday in most provinces, but it's optional, not official, in Atlantic areas such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Like in the U.S., there are competing theories about the origin of Thanksgiving in Canada. The first celebratory feast predated the pilgrim Thanksgiving, but some suggest the holiday was made a tradition by pro-British American colonists who fled to English-controlled Canada after the Revolutionary War, bringing their holiday practices with them.

Thanksgiving parades are on the agenda in some cities and towns, but for the most part, Canadian Thanksgiving is a low-key holiday defined by meals with family and friends. Because of common crops and shared history and influences, traditional dishes are similar for U.S. and Canadian Thanksgivings. Turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing have central places on the tables in both celebrations.

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Kaamatan Harvest Festival

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Kaamatan, or Pesta Kaamatan, takes place in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Traditionally, this rice harvest festival lasts for a month, and it is especially important among the people of the Kadazan ethnic group. In some areas, the holiday is actually known as the Kadazan Harvest Festival. Other ethnic groups from this diverse region of Borneo take part in the festivities, which include feasts, buffalo racing, concerts, and performances.

In modern times, the final two days of the festival, which are considered a state-wide holiday, include cultural performances featuring the different ethnic groups from around Sabah as well as pageants and parades. Some traditionalists say the state-level Kaamatan events have become too commercialized, though others praise them for showcasing and celebrating the region's cultural diversity. Towns and villages in the state hold smaller celebrations earlier in May.

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Mehregan is one of the world's oldest harvest festivals. This Persian holiday traces its roots all the way back the early days of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest organized religions, predating all of today's most-widely-practiced faiths. Mehregan is a harvest festival celebrated in Iran and by members of the Iranian diaspora, who often refer to it as the Persian Autumn Festival.

Mehregan is celebrated at the beginning of October each year. Though the feast day features traditions and, in some places, celebrations of Persian culture, the most defining practice is the detailed decoration of the Mehregan table. Celebrants lay dishes of fruit, desserts, nuts, scented water, flowers, and fragrant herbs on top of a colorful tablecloth. The table setting and related traditions and prayers take place in the afternoon. These practices precede an evening thanksgiving feast and, in some Iranian villages, a bonfire or fireworks.

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Mid-Autumn Festival

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The Mid Autumn Festival takes place in China, Vietnam and other countries in the Sinosphere in late September or early October. Like many East Asian festivals, the date of this holiday is based on a lunar calendar, which is why the exact day varies from year to year. Chinese farmers have held post-harvest celebrations during the harvest moon for several thousand years, but today's traditions vary slightly by region.

Most celebrations include mooncakes, which are dense pastries filled with sweetened bean paste. Paper lanterns are also a part of the festivities, and they play an especially prominent role in Southeast Asia. In fact, in Singapore and Malaysia, many people call Mid-Autumn the Lantern Festival. In Vietnam, the celebrations focus on events and gifts for children. In Taiwan, the day is an official holiday, while many people in Hong Kong get the day after the Mid-Autumn Festival off because celebrations typically run late into the night.

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Crop Over

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Crop Over began in the colonial era as a celebration to mark the end of the sugarcane harvest season. Despite having its roots in a time defined by slavery, Crop Over continued as a major celebration through the decades until sugarcane cultivation died out in the mid 20th century. The festival was revived in the 1970s as a celebration of Bajan culture and history. Today it's an island-wide celebration on par with carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The festival lasts for several months, with community concerts and parties starting in April and Crop Over officially kicking off in June. The festivities climax in August when a carnival-like parade and huge calypso concert take place during Grand Kadooment. What began as a harvest festival has become the biggest event of the year in Barbados and a major tourist draw. Generally, the earlier concerts and events before the official start of Crop Over have more of a community feel.

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Thai Pongal

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Thai Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated in Southern India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, and in other places with a large population of Tamil people. It coincides with Makar Sankranti, an Indian festival dedicated to the sun god. Pongal is traditionally a harvest festival for farmers, and in years with a good crop, it ushers in a period of profitability defined by weddings, parties and other celebrations.

Thai is the name of the first month on the Tamil calendar (it usually occurs in January). Pongal refers to the celebration, and also to a milk and rice pudding dish with mung beans and cardamom that people cook in a clay pot during the holiday. After it's done, the cook serves the pongal on banana leaves. Another aspect of this festival involves bathing a farm's cattle and decorating them with garlands to thank them for their work in the fields during the growing season.

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Dozynki is a harvest festival of Eastern European origin. It's widely celebrated in Poland and in other countries with many people of Polish descent. The holiday often has religious elements, but it has its roots in pre-Christian times when Slavic peoples celebrated the harvest during the autumnal equinox. These early festivals evolved into a celebration during which tenant farmers would present their harvest to landowners, and the owners would in turn treat the farmers to a special feast.

Traditions vary by region, but most celebrations include making figures out of straw, and ceremonial processions involving the last crops from a field for that season. In communities outside of Poland, the festivities often involve cultural performances and traditional Polish foods. Countries such as Belarus and the Czech Republic also celebrate this holiday.

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Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia

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Harvest celebrations vary depending on the most important crop in a given area. Thai Pongal celebrates rice, Dozynki usually includes grains and cereals, and in Mendoza, Argentina, the harvest festival known as Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia (National Grape Harvest Festival) focuses on grapes. Actually, wine and winemaking are the stars of the show at this annual autumn holiday in the Southern Hemisphere, which draws tourists from all over the world.

The festival dates back to the 17th century, though the first "official" Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia was in the 1930s. The celebrations go well beyond wine and wine making, with dance performances, parades, pageants and fireworks displays. National Geographic ranked Fiesta Vendimia as one of the world's top harvest festivals — second only to the Thanksgiving celebrations in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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Sukkot is a harvest festival celebrated in Israel and by Jewish communities all around the world. The festival takes place in September or October and is always five days after Yom Kippur. It's the last holiday on the Jewish fall festival calendar. Whereas Yom Kippur is a more-solemn holiday, Sukkot is joyful. It lasts seven days, though some Jewish communities celebrate for eight.

Traditionally, people spend time in a sukkah, which is a kind of tent or booth topped with branches. They also perform a ritual with a bouquet of citron, willow, palm and myrtle known as the Four Kinds or Four Species. The holiday is preceded by Sukkot markets, where people can buy the four plants and other items to celebrate the harvest.

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Chuseok is a Korean thanksgiving that often earns comparisons to its American counterpart. Though the foods surrounding this festival are different from those on North America, Chuseok is a time to return home to mingle with family and friends and to overeat. Both North and South Korea celebrate the holiday, which usually falls sometime near the autumnal equinox. The date varies because it's based on the lunar calendar.

In Korea, people traditionally leave urban areas during Chuseok and visit their hometown, where they make offerings to their ancestors. Traditions and dishes vary, but most people eat songpyeon, a kind of rice flour bun filled with beans, seeds or other stuffings. Koreans will also exchange gifts with relatives.