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What is Thanksgiving All About?

by David Williams

Thanksgiving is thought of as an American celebration but it's celebrated in many countries around the world in their own style. So what is Thanksgiving and why is it celebrated?

Thanksgiving is a celebration of harvest and the year preceding. The main countries where this is celebrated is the USA and Canada. The Americans celebrate on the 4th Thursday in November and Canadians in the 2nd Monday of October.

The first official Thanksgiving Day in America was on the 3rd October 1863 after endorsement by President Lincoln. The holiday is now one of the major dates of the broader holiday season in the US together with Christmas and New Year.

The idea of thanksgiving started a long time before Lincoln. It began in Britain at the time of the Reformation when the number of religious holidays was cut from 95 to 27 as it was interrupting the economic flow of the country as each holiday meant time in church instead of work. The days which Puritans thought were of significance were called Days of Fasting or Thanksgiving Days. When the Puritans left for the New World, the term went with them. Thanksgiving Days in Britain were significant days which followed natural occurrences. For example, there were Thanksgiving Days following the plagues of 1604 and 1622, drought of 1611 and floods of 1613. They were not all associated with nature, another day first recognised as a Thanksgiving Day was one in 1606 to commemorate the failure of Guy Fawkes to destroy Parliament the year before. This has now become Guy Fawkes Day. The first Thanksgiving in America lasted three days and was held in 1621 to give thanks for the first harvest in the new land.

In America, Thanksgiving dinner is a central part of the celebrations with a menu of American native produce such as turkey, squashes, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Most dinners start with the tradition of saying grace. The less fortunate are traditionally given food at this time with many non perishable goods being given to charities to distribute to the less well off. Religious services can be found either on the day itself or the Sunday before as a commemoration for the holiday. Thanksgiving Eve is a busy time for bars as people begin to celebrate. It is a very busy time for travelling too as many people head home for the holiday which usually lasts until after the weekend. There are many parades over the weekend most herald the beginning of the Christmas season with Santa Clause being at the rear of the parade. The most famous parade of this type is Macy's Parade in New York. American football is an integral part of the holiday with many professional teams playing either on the day itself or over the weekend. The day after is known as Black Friday as it's the day when many people start their seasonal shopping and make it one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Canada does things slightly differently. The day was made an official holiday in 1957. It is observed by most of the provinces except those along the eastern coast. Canadian Thanksgiving is very much like the European harvest festivals with produce decorating churches. Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout the weekend culminating on the Monday. There are parades and football games just like south of the border. The big difference is that there's no traditional family turkey dinner. Many Canadians take the opportunity to have a last weekend away before the winter sets in.

In Germany, the Erntedankfest, Thanksgiving Festival takes place at the beginning of October. It has a harvest dinner and a significant religious element in celebration of the harvest. In Bavaria it's nearly always linked to the Oktoberfest. In the Netherlands there's a special commemorative service on the morning of the American Thanksgiving Day at the Pieterskerk in Leiden as many of the first Pilgrims sailed from there. The service gives thanks for the safe passage of the Pilgrims to the New World.

In late September or early October, there is a Thanksgiving Day in Korea which gives thanks for the harvest. In Japan there is a Labour Thanksgiving Day where they celebrate the achievements of hard work in industry as well as agriculture. This annual event takes place on November 23rd and was an influence of the American occupational forces in the Second World War.

The idea of giving thanks for the harvest seems to be something many people around the world celebrate. They might not do it in as much festivities as in north America but it's done all the same. Here in the UK there will be many traditional harvest festivals as we too celebrate the harvest and give thanks for the food it provides.

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David Williams

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July 2014 in Lifestyle