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A Look At Thanksgiving Traditions Around The World

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thanksgiving turkey
thanksgiving turkey
Thanksgiving turkey. Photo courtesy of timsackton.

Among much else, America is a land where leaves change color and temperatures begin to reach nose-nipping levels during the month of November. These notions have made finding the best way to curl up into the changing seasons a priority since it was first encountered by European pilgrims. They quickly discovered what remains to be an ideal method of coping with the incoming cold weather: Getting together with friends and family, digging into a turkey dinner and stuffing their face.

The History Of Thanksgiving In America

The 52 surviving pilgrims of the Mayflower vessel — who eventually settled on the Plymouth Plantation — and 90 Native Americans celebrated the first Thanksgiving during the harvest season of 1621. Their tables didn’t contain many of the staple dishes like pumpkin or apple pie (sugar supplies were long gone by this point), yams or even potatoes; however, surviving the season was enough reason for the pilgrims to celebrate with turkey, venison and shellfish, prepared with traditional Native American spices. With the help of the Wampanoag Indians, the pilgrims learned native hunting and harvesting techniques. To show their thanks, they hosted a 3-day celebration.

The celebration became a tradition in the following years, until battles over land eventually led to the cessation of this peaceful meal. It then wasn’t until influential American writer Sarah Joespha Hale campaigned President Lincoln to establish the festivities as a national holiday in 1863. The celebration was put in place to unify the country following the Civil War.

Today, over 90% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, with more of this bird consumed on this holiday than Christmas and Easter combined. It’s become one of the biggest holidays of the year, with 44 million people tuning into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

While some groups now acknowledge the date as the Day of Mourning to commemorate the Native Americans who lost their lives over early disputes, Thanksgiving is still widely celebrated as a symbol of cultural cooperation. Americans enjoy the holiday so much, they spread their Thanksgiving traditions around the world. Today you can find celebrations in some unlikely locations across the globe, which were happy to take an excuse to celebrate a hardworking season, or even just get together over a good meal.

dutch apple pie
Dutch apple pie is a Thanksgiving staple in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Randy Son of Robert.

The Netherlands – 4th Thursday of November

Many of the first pilgrims to settle in Plymouth Plantation in America were originally from Leiden in The Netherlands. As a result, Dutch influences could be found all over the settlement, from the style of chairs to how marriage certificates were drafted and land was separated. Once the pilgrims started establishing their own traditions, news spread back to Leiden (slowly and by ship admittedly) and the idea of a Thanksgiving celebration caught on.

Today, people flock to the Gothic churches of Leiden for a Thanksgiving Day service, check out the American Pilgrim Museum, then devour some turkeys of their own. While the bird is more expensive in Europe, it remains a staple dish for the celebration along with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. One plate that hasn’t caught on however is pumpkin pie, so if you find yourself amongst the Dutch for the season, save your sweet tooth for some Dutch apple pie.

chili peppers
In Liberia they add some spice to their Thanksgiving meal. Photo courtesy of ribbla.

Liberia – 1st Thursday of November

Thanksgiving continued to be a tying tradition for colonies and colonizers even when the tables turned for America. Following the end of the slave trade, the nation sent many past slaves to seek freedom in the colony of Liberia. These Americans were happy for a fresh start in a new land, and couldn’t help but take a celebration about bringing cultures together to their new home. As a result, traditional Thanksgiving casseroles and beans became fused with chicken and cassava (a starchy tropical fruit) under a layer of spicy cayenne peppers. To work off all the food (and try to save pant buttons from popping), meals are usually followed by a dancehall celebration featuring traditional Liberian music.

In Japan, exchanging chocolates is a Thanksgiving custom. Photo courtesy of Rod Senna.

Japan – Labour Thanksgiving Day (Kinro-kasha-no-hi) – November 23

The tradition spreads farther still to Japan, which got introduced to the holiday during American occupation of the country following WWII. Here, the celebration combines the traditional notion of giving thanks with the even more ancient Shinto harvest ceremony, Niiname-sai.

While the date is national holiday, it serves more to commemorate the yearly toil of workers and laborers across the country. More recently, Japanese housewives have pushed for the celebration of domestic work to be included in the festivities.
In Japan, however, don’t expect an enormous feast. Instead, thanks is exchanged between workers in the form of boxes of chocolates and candies and the day is spent resting and enjoying time as a family, not toiling over a turkey.

norfolk island
Norfolk Island. Photo courtesy of roberthuffstutter.

Norfolk Island – Last Wednesday of November

To complete the round-the-world reach of Thanksgiving, the celebration managed to find its way to the tiny Australian external territory of Norfolk Island. The island lies between Australia and New Zealand and hosts a small population of 2,100 residents; however, it hosted a number of Americans in the 1960s looking for work as whalers.

These whalers first got together to celebrate in the All Saint’s church. The building was decorated with palm leaves and lemons and people gathered from across the island to enjoy a meal and a laugh together. Today, families bring all sorts of crops to decorate the churches and many are sold in religious fundraisers or eaten during dinner. The hot southern-summer climate makes cooking turkey less than desirable, so cold chicken and pork are more common. Moreover, unlike the Dutch, the Australians love pumpkin pie desserts. This being said, if you find yourself at a Norfolk Thanksgiving, don’t expect a formal sit-down meal. The laid-back island lifestyle brings a more casual potluck style vibe to the holiday.

No matter where you are in the world, Thanksgiving is meant to be a time to look back and be thankful for everything you’ve received throughout the year, whether this be a bountiful farm harvest, liberty and freedom, hardworking service or even a good season from our favorite football team going into the turkey bowl.


About The Author

Currently working in a museum, Judi Zienchuk has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Northwestern Canada. She loves travel, longboarding and coffee flavored ice cream. To get more personal, check out her blog, Travvel Sized.

Judi Zienchuk

Judi Zienchuk has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Northwestern Canada. When she's not galavanting the globe, you can usually either find her on a bike or consuming large amounts of caffeine (maybe even both at the same time).

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