Reprint (2002 Grit )
While Americans think of Thanksgiving as unique and special, it is actually just one of hundreds of such harvest celebrations that take place throughout the world. The festivals are as diverse as human cultures, and many of them are precursors to America’s Thanksgiving celebration.
The Chinese have a numerical system for the days of the week and the months of the year. The harvest festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the Eighth Moon, or month, which is nicknamed Harvest Moon. The day is celebrated with theatrical presentations performed by troupes of entertainers and stiltwalkers and by the preparation of candy and cakes shaped like the moon.
Unlike the Chinese, who used the moon to mark their harvest festival, the early Egyptians used a river. It was the annual rising of the Nile River that set the calendar of sowing and reaping with its three seasons: inundation, growth and harvest. The harvest season was called shemon, the time of harvest and heat. Every district, at least once a year, celebrated a festival in honor of a local deity, usually with offerings and feasting.
The ancient Greeks, thriving in Mediterranean countries in the centuries after the Egyptians, held their harvest festival, called Thesmophoria. With it, they honored Demeter, who was the founder of agriculture and the goddess of harvest. It was celebrated by married women only, in November in Athens. The women went in procession to the temple of Demeter to begin 3 days of feasting. The symbols of the goddess were poppies and ears of corn, a basket of fruit and a small pig. Gifts offered to Demeter were cows, pigs and fruit.
Demeter, under the Latin name, Ceres, was worshiped by the Romans with an October festival called Cerelia. This celebration started with a fast, an offering of a pig and the first cuttings of the harvest. Processions were held in the fields with music and sports, and the festival ended with a feast.
The Romans held another harvest festival in November, in honor of Poona, the goddess of fruits. Fruits centerpieces, apples and nuts (foods stored for the winter) were set up in homes.
The British Isles
When the Romans occupied the British Isles in A.D.43, they conquered the Celts who had rules for some 400 years. Druidism was the religion of the Celts, who worshiped nature. The two important feasts of the Druids were Beltane in the spring and the autumn festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest. According to the old Celtic calendar, since the Samhain festival fell on the last day of October and the Celts’ new year began on the first day of November, a joint celebration was held honoring both Samhain, the lord of death, and the Sun God. The Druids, while under Roman rule, added parts of the Romans’ harvest festival of Pomona to the Samhain celebration.
The pagan night of feasting was thought to be a night when witches, ghosts and the spirits of the dead roam free. Once Christianity arrived, the festival became known as All Saints’ Day or All Hallows Eve. The customs combined to become the Halloween celebration observed today.
The Jewish people of the New Testament also lived under Roman law. Although Judaism observes several feasts and festivals as worship events, 3 of an agricultural nature required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: Passover marks the beginning of spring and commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt; Shavuot was the last day of the barley harvest; and the Feast of Kings or the Feast of Ingathering, falls on the 15th day of the 7th month.
In England, the autumn festival was called Harvest Home, and the celebration varied from area to area. It took place at the close of harvest. Most of the merrymaking commenced with church services. The villages were decorated, usually with fruits and vegetables, and a harvest feast was held.
In Germany, feasting and Octoberfest celebrations are part of the seasonal harvest. In Austria, a sheaf is shaped into a wreath, which then crowns the harvest festival queen. In Southern France, the last sheaf is shaped into a cross and decorated with ribbons and flowers.
One of the most common harvest festivals during medieval times across Europe was the Feast of Martinmas, which fell on November 11. People attended Mass, and the rest of the day was filled with fun and games and feasting.
The Puritans who sailed to the New World in 1620 would have been familiar with the Feast of Martinmas, for they had lived in Holland for 10 years prior to their Atlantic voyage.
The governor of Massachusetts decreed that Dec. 13, 1621, be set aside for feasting and prayer by the Puritans, in gratitude for the bounty of the harvest and the generosity of the American Indians.
In 1665, Connecticut proclaimed an annual day of thanksgiving on the first Wednesday in October. After that, the custom slowly spread throughout the New England states.
The first nationwide thanksgiving was proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. Other presidents, as well as governors, proclaimed the observance of a day of thanksgiving, all at different times of the year.
Finally, Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Ladies’ Magazine, began in 1827 to have Thanksgiving Day celebrated regularly across the nation. After reading one of her editorials in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that Thanksgiving would be an annual national holiday observed on the last Thursday in November.