When we think about harvest festivals, we automatically think of Thanksgiving in the United States. But there have always been harvest festivals everywhere – autumn celebrations jubilantly thanking the gods for their gracious, abundant bounty, and praying for their blessing to live and thrive for another year.
Harvest festivals go back to the dawn of agriculture. Naturally, the original holidays have long since faded away due to the vast social and religious changes over the centuries. But there are many modern harvest festivals and national holidays similar to the American Thanksgiving, each with its own traditions and stories. This list showcases ten harvest festivals, and their accompanying narratives.
10. Mehregan (Iran)
Mehregan, the Festival of Autumn, is the Persian version of Thanksgiving. It is a Zoroastrian festival that goes back to the 4th century BC, long before Persians become Muslims. It takes its name from Mehr, the Zoroastrian deity of love and friendship. Much of this Harvest Holiday has changed since antiquity, largely after the rise of Islam. But Mehregan is still celebrated by many modern Persians, especially since its revival in the 1960’s when the Postal Service of Tehran, to commemorate the Mehregan Festival, issued a special limited edition of postage stamps, now considered rare collectibles.
Mehregan includes family reunions across the country, prayers in front of large mirrors, and an lavishly-decorated dinner table adorned with old fashioned silver plates and disks, flowers, incense, wild marjoram, and silver coins. There’s lots of traditional food, served with sherbet, rosewater, almonds, sweets, apples, pomegranates, and lotus seeds. The extravagant settings give you the feeling that you are back in ancient Persia
9. Cerelia (Ancient Rome)
This is an ancient version of Thanksgiving, and even though it isn’t celebrated today, we can’t overlook its historical significance and the role this holiday played in Ancient Rome. Cerelia was dedicated to Ceres, the Roman Goddess of grain. It was celebrated every autumn on October 4th, so this Harvest Festival is also called the “Autumnal Festival.”
The Romans loved to party, and Cerelia was no exception. The festival included parades, sporting events in front of the ecstatic Roman crowd, and splendid Thanksgiving feasts, held either privately in the homes of the wealthy, or publicly, organized by the municipality. Revelers feasted on roasted pigs and the first products of the autumn harvest – all dedicated to Ceres as sign of gratitude. Along with the mountains of food to eat, citizens also drank rivers of wine, which helped fuel a common Roman custom not mentioned in your schoolbooks – lots of sex and orgies.
8. Chuseok (Korea)
Chuseok, also known as the Korean Thanksgiving, is a major holiday in Korea. Its date is determined by the lunar calendar, so it is held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The holiday usually lasts three days, and like most Harvest festivals, it includes family reunions. In Korea, families gather at their ancestral homes to give thanks and to feast on delicious traditional food, like delicate rice cakes steamed on a bed of pine needles.
After the holiday meal is over, family members visit their ancestors’ graves for Beolcho – the customary act of clearing away any weeds that may have grown up over the burial mound. They also play traditional folk games such as Ganggangsullae – a kind of dance that goes back five thousand years. In Korea, gift-giving is part of the Harvest festival, and it’s common to give attractively boxed gifts of a popular food – spam.
7. Tsiknopempti (Greece)
Fans of steak and BBQ probably value this day more than even Christmas or Easter, and there’s a good reason for that. In Greece there’s nothing similar to Thanksgiving except Tsiknopempti, the closest thing the country has to a Harvest Festival. It’s one of the traditional celebrations of February’s Carnival season in Greece. It always falls on a Thursday, and this is where it gets its name, since Tsiknopempti loosely translated means “Barbecue Thursday.” It’s the time for the Greeks to thank the Lord for the bounties He gave them during the year, and to gain strength for the next forty days of fasting, the Lenten days before Easter.
So during Tsiknopempti the mouth-watering aromas of barbecuing meats fill every corner of every street in Greece. At night, the hosts of the family reunions lay out vast amounts of souvlaki, gyros, lamb, and pork. Add lots of wine, and the night ends with plenty of high-spirited plate smashing and joyous dancing.
6. Dia de Acao de Gracas (Brazil)
The Brazilian version of Thanksgiving is similar to the American one, and there’s an historical explanation for this. Thanksgiving was established in the country of coffee in the late 1940’s by Brazilian President Gaspar Dutra after he heard the Brazilian ambassador to the United States describe the American holiday. Originally the Brazilian version of Thanksgiving was almost identical to the American one; in 1966, Brazil even officially designated the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, just as it is in the United States. Brazilians, however, have a colorful and diverse culture of their own, and through the years they have greatly changed the holiday, so that now it’s quite different from the American Thanksgiving.
Attending Mass on Dia de Acao de Gracas is a must for all who want to offer to God their gratitude for the abundant harvest, and afterwards the younger set joins in the revelry of the Thanksgiving carnival, or takes advantage of the hot, sunny weather to go to the beautiful beaches. The Brazilian Thanksgiving meal naturally features peru (roast turkey) as the main dish, garnished with fixings for every taste – cracklings, sweet potatoes, exotic salads, cornbread stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Cranberries don’t grow in Brazil, so instead of cranberry sauce, Brazilians use a similar fruit to make aboticaba sauce, giving the meal a unique Brazilian touch.
5. Liberian Thanksgiving (Liberia)
The influence of the American Thanksgiving in Liberia is really obvious. In fact, this holiday, along with the Canadian Thanksgiving, is one of the versions of Thanksgiving most like the American one. That has a reasonable explanation, since Liberia was established as an official state only in 1822, mainly by freed African-American slaves. Naturally the former Americans carried many cultural elements of their previous country to their new land, and one of them was Thanksgiving, now celebrated in Liberia every year on the first Thursday of November. Over the years, however, aspects of African culture – and more specifically Liberian culture – were added to the American traditions, and the holiday shows the changes.
For one thing, Liberians offer their gratitude that they are free people today, and no longer slaves. But some of the biggest differences are in the food. Liberians prefer chicken to turkey, and mashed cassava is served instead of mashed potatoes. Liberians really love their food all hot and spicy, so Thanksgiving dishes are made with plenty of cayenne and fiery peppers.
4. Crop Over (Barbados)
The Crop Over summer festival is the biggest harvest holiday festival in Barbados. As early as the 1870’s, the people of Barbados organized Crop Over festivals to thank God and to rejoice in another year of bountiful sugar cane harvests. But the celebration faded away for many decades after the decline of sugar production that began the mid-1940’s.
Then in 1974 the holiday was revived, with more elements of Barbadian culture added. The Crop Over festival nowadays includes parades and colorful carnivals, with big doses of calypso music and dancing, and even bigger doses of local food, candy, and excessive alcohol – all more reminiscent of the carnivals of Brazil than of Thanksgiving in the United States.
3. Homowo Festival (Ghana)
This festival is one of the most important holidays in modern Ghana, celebrated mostly by the people of Ga, as they are known – the most adventurous and exploratory ethnic group in Ghana. The people of Ga once traveled all across Africa before finally settling in Ghana. During this migration they endured many hardships, including a terrible famine. From those memories Homowo (meaning “to jeer at hunger”) was born.
Homowo starts in May with the traditional sowing of millet by priests, and commemorates the day the ancestors won victory over hunger. After the harvest in August and September, the people feast on traditional favorites such as palm nut soup with fish. Famine is hooted at and ridiculed with songs and dancing, and the revelers praise God for the good fortune that guided them to the blessed land of Ghana.
2. Erntedankfest (Germany)
Germans celebrate their own version of Thanksgiving, but in their own unique way. The main difference between similar holidays around the world and Germany’s Erntedankfest is that in Germany it’s not a holiday that most Germans combine with family reunions. It’s a religious holiday which differs regionally depending on each location’s history and cultural traditions.
Erntedankfest, which means “Harvest Festival,” is usually celebrated in late September or early October. It’s a Protestant holiday in which the church plays a large role. An Erntedankfest celebration in a big city like Berlin typically includes volunteer work for the poor and attending Mass, followed by music, dancing, and lots of food in and outside the church. The festival is especially popular with the youngsters because it peaks with torch-lit parades and fireworks.
1. The Moon Festival (China)
The Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, is the Chinese version of Thanksgiving. It is considered one of the most significant traditional celebrations in China, going back to antiquity. Legend says that the Goddess Chang’e flew to the moon, where she would stay forever. Now she is considered the Goddess of the Moon, and the Moon Festival is dedicated to her.
The children love such fairytales and myths, but the Moon Festival is also a great opportunity for family reunions, and every year, on the evening of August’s Harvest Moon, most Chinese families find a way to get together to enjoy the full moon, eat delicious pastries called “moon cakes,” dance, sing, and recite traditional “Moon Poems.’’
Unmarried people consider the Moon Festival a perfect opportunity for romance. All over the country, young men coax their best girls to slip away for a moment for a conversation commonly held on this romantic evening – a proposal of marriage under the beautiful moon.