Thanksgiving Tradition Around the World

Nov 2016
Many countries celebrate the concept of giving thanks for the harvest. While I always tend to think of the November holiday as a North American event, I wondered about the Thanksgiving tradition around the world.  Not surprisingly, many countries rejoice and give thanks for the food on their table.

My Family Tradition

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year.  Coming just before the hustle and bustle of Christmas, the focus is on family, good times and good food.  My birthday falls on or around the day, and that gives rise to a double celebration. We’ve had as many as 30 people, but the number is usually around 12.
I am lucky to have my two sisters nearby, and for over 20 years, have acted as host.  This year I find especially bittersweet as we are in the process of downsizing and this will perhaps be the final turkey day in our beloved 1880 Victorian.
Like many in the US, the day centers around football pools, food preparation and lots of laughs.   A fire is always roaring, and if anyone has friends who are without family close by, an open invitation is waiting.  We often smoke the turkey on the grill, which has led to a few disasters {a raw 1/2 bird, and an overcooked carcass on the floor are two that immediately come to mind}, but the smell of the wood chips that whistles in the door every time someone goes out to baste the bird makes the potential mishap all the more worthwhile.  Plus, there is so much additional food, a turkey disaster is always salvageable.
smoked salmon british columbia
Everyone, no matter their age, has something to bring.  The youngest is usually in charge of the rolls. We start the day with a large platter of smoked salmon with all the accoutrements: dill, capers, chopped onion and egg, sour cream and pumpernickel bread.  That takes us through ’til dinner. It’s light enough and can be replenished as guests arrive. Traditional side dishes take center stage for the meal, mashed potato and turnip, green beans with onion rings, homemade cranberry sauce and stuffing made with sausage, onion, celery, apple and anything else I happen to want to try in this years recipe.  Getting the bird stuffed is always a challenge, we usually get a 25 lb fresh bird, and its a bit slippery.  Plus since I no longer eat meat, this task is not one of my favorites.  I roast a selection of root vegetables along with Brussels sprouts.  Just a little olive oil and salt and pepper at high heat, and its becoming a favorite for us all.
Thanksgiving traditions
When we sit down to the table, we have whimsical  name cards that my nephew and I made 7 or 8 years ago from pine cones, feathers and pipe cleaners. We save them from year to year, changing and adding depending on who’s on the guest list. Candles light the room and everyone joins hands before we begin eating. One by one we  go around the table, sharing what we are thankful for.  Usually, about 3 people in, someone has sentimental tears and we all have a good laugh.  The length of the meal hardly justifies all the work that goes into it, but the day is about so much more that just the turkey, it’s an event for family in our house, full of traditions and love.
Thanksgiving tradition around the world
Desserts involve decadence and more decadence.  There is an icebox cake made with chocolate wafers and whip cream that everyone in our family has for their birthday, and then a chocolate pecan pie and usually a pumpkin delight, such as this pumpkin pot-du-creme that I created for a Stonyfield recipe challenge.  A walk around the block finishes off the evening, and more often that not, everyone usually ends up spending the night so we can jump into shopping for the holidays on Small Business Friday, the next day!

Thanksgiving Tradition Around the World

The idea for this holiday dates back to ancient Greece, celebrating the Goddess Demeter and ancient grains. The 3 day festival known as Thesmophoria focused on food, and certainly that tradition continues into our modern day food feast of Thanksgiving.

My husband’s family is Canadian; I am well acquainted with the tradition of Thanksgiving north of the border.  Since it falls on Columbus day, it has always been symbolically the start of our family’s celebration of the harvest. Similar in flavor to our festivities, I’ve felt especially lucky to have my favorite holiday twice every year.

I remember the first time I tasted a Canadian butter tart during a summer stint at a lake in Northern Ontario (pre marriage). This must be what heaven tastes like, as I snuck several from the freshly baked dozen just out of the oven. I couldn’t imagine anything tasting better except a larger version that I have added to our own table for the festivities. Along with Nanaimo bars, it often appears on the Canadian table: do your guests a favor and add it to yours as well.  This is  a joyful excuse to expand on the traditional tart with the addition of maple syrup and more of the addictive filling in this pie version from NL Rock Recipes  for one of my Canadian favorites.

Mooncakes, above from La Receta de la Felicidad, are the speciality of China’s Chung Ch’ui festival. The three day harvest festival is celebrated in the 8th month on the full moon.  Good fortune will come to anyone seeing flowers falling from the sky according to Chinese legend.

One of the most important Korean holidays is the lunar based Chuseok.  Celebrated close to the autumnal equinox, and the same time of year as the Chinese moon festival, it is a day filled with traditions and family. Ancestors are celebrated and freshly harvested foods are prepared to give thanks.
The elemental shelter erected for one week each fall is traditional for the Israeli celebration of Sukkoth. Often built of branches laden with fruits of the season such as apples, grapes and pomegranates, the structures represent the makeshift huts made by the Israelites built neat the edges of their fields during harvest time.  The sukkah is also said to represent the tabernacles in the temporary shelters constructed during the 40 years of dessert travel.
In Lithuania, the Thanksgiving tradition of Nubalgal involves the creation of a boba or harvest wreath. A procession follows, along with song, celebrating the crops that were rescued from a huge bison who was attempting to devour it.

Azores festival of Thanksgiving

For over six hundred years the city of Tomar in the Azores  has celebrated the Festa dos Tabuleiros in respect of thanksgiving for harvest foods.  While it is only celebrated every three years, the four day summer festival includes dancing, concerts and fireworks, along with feasting. There are conflicting ideas about the origin, but most agree that it comes from Roman times and honors the goddess of the harvest, Ceres, centering around grain and daily bread.

Bittersweet on the Thanksgiving table
To all of my American friends-enjoy family and good food as we give thanks for our blessings.  To my readers elsewhere in the world, I give thanks for having you along for this journey!
What are your traditions for giving thanks in celebration of food and the harvest?
  1. Patti Morrow says:

    I love the pinecone place cards — they’re cute and have sentimental value, the best of both worlds. Also enjoyed seeing the Festa dos Tabuleiros photo again. Enjoy your last Thanksgiving in your large beautiful, but remember, home is where the heart is! Can’t wait for my kids to converge on my home in SC.

  2. Alison, I think this is one of your best posts EVER! I could really feel the sentiment you were sharing with us re your own TG celebrations. Would LOVE to around that table and share some of those pumpkin delights! Will have to check out that Newfoundland recipe, too! All the best to you and yours.

  3. Donna Janke says:

    I loved reading about some of the traditions around the world. We need to stop and give thank more often. Your mention of butter tarts reminded me of a time a couple of winters ago when we spent the winter in a 55+ park in Arizona. I made butter tarts to bring to a social get-together. The Americans stared at them and wanted to know what they were. After they tried one, they went back for more and one fellow said I wasn’t allowed to bring them anymore – they were too addictive!

  4. Anna Parker says:

    I have always wondered what Thanksgiving was all about, apart from the obvious clues in the name… Really interesting post thank you

  5. Lucy says:

    How interesting! I’m from the UK so we don’t do Thanksgiving so it’s interesting to see how other countries celebrate (and I agree on the butter tarts, tried my first one in Canada this summer – yum)

  6. We have one major thing in common here – a love of butter tarts 🙂 I actually wrote an ode to the butter tart after first tasting one in Canada and now I miss them tons, especially at this time of year!

    • alison says:

      I think our pecan pie is the closest I’ve come and every time my sister makes it I dream of those yummy tarts. It’s probably a good thing I can’t find them here!

  7. Sue Reddel says:

    I love the idea of sharing global influences at the Thanksgiving table. We had a large crowd this year and some new folks from Morocco and Germany. Our Polish in-laws brought cheese blintzes. A surprising new addition to our Thanksgiving meal.

  8. I love the sentiment behind Thanksgiving – something I wish we did in the UK. Actually I might just have to do it anyway! What are the moon cakes filled with btw?

    • alison says:

      The moon cakes are filled with different types of bean paste. Some are sweet, some savory. I’m going to look in our Chinatown to try and find them next year.

  9. Oh if ONLY we had thanksgiving here in the UK! It’s not fair! Christmas has become so commercial, it would be good to have a minimalist tradition focusing of being grateful rather than getting stuff!!

    • alison says:

      Many from the UK have said the same thing. The commercialization of Christmas has taken much of the joy away from me. I try to have my shopping done early(and never succeed) so I can avoid the stores.

  10. Thanks! I enjoy the combination of hearing about your family traditions and the celebrations around the world. (I’m starting with a tray of smoked salmon next year–to add to our traditional, elaborate relish tray.)

    • alison says:

      Thanks Kristen. I love having nibbles for everyone, especially salmon. It helps with the liquor consumption :)The great thing about a relish tray is you can continue to add and change it up however you like.