Ah, Thanksgiving! The smell of turkeys roasting and pies baking, and the delight of family and friends gathering together to feast and give thanks.
For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a favorite time of year. And if you've studied the Pilgrims in school, you probably know that they celebrated "Thanksgiving" with the native Americans, who helped them plant and harvest their first successful crops in the New World.
For three days, they feasted, played games, and gave thanks for a bountiful harvest. But did you know that many other cultures around the world celebrate similar holidays?
People in several countries have their own ways of rejoicing in a good harvest and giving thanks for blessings received. I was interested to know about these other cultures and how celebrating the harvest ties people around the world together.
After looking up a great deal of information, I asked my dad, Lynn Mason, what he thinks. He's an anthropologist. That's a person who studies different human cultures, so I was sure he had plenty to tell me.
"Harvest festivals are windows into a society's relationship to the environment and the world," he says. "Learning about a society's harvest festival is a good way to learn what is important to that society in terms of how people relate to one another, its language, art, symbols, values and beliefs, rituals and recipes."
In China, the Harvest Moon Festival (also called the Mid-Autumn Festival) takes place each year – usually in September or October. It honors the Chinese moon goddess Chang E.
The Chinese people consider the moon to be important. That's because in the past, they depended on its phases (full moon, half-moon, etc.) to know when to plant and harvest their crops.
Today, children are allowed to stay up late with the adults for the festival. They celebrate by lighting paper lanterns, spending time with family, moon gazing, and giving thanks for the blessings they've received throughout the year.
The also eat moon cakes. These are small, round cakes filled with nuts, bean paste, lotus-seed paste, or fruit. They are often decorated with pictures of the moon.
The Harvest Moon Festival marks the end of the harvest and is one of the most joyful times of the year for the Chinese people.
Just as Americans remember the Pilgrims and the struggles they went through during their first years in the New World, Jewish people around the world remember the hardships of their ancestors by celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, which usually is observed in October.
Many families build a sukkah, a temporary structure with a roof. It serves as a reminder of the time in their history when the Jewish people were forced to flee Egypt, through the desert. Some say that they built small shelters out of the few materials that were available.
The roof of a sukkah is made from loosely woven corn husks, branches, or leaves, so that the sky can be seen from inside.
The sukkah is decorated with fruits to symbolize the harvest, and people give thanks to God for the blessings of nature. They eat meals, study, or share time together in the sukkah. Some families even sleep in it at night for the duration of Sukkot, which lasts seven days.
Each January, the Hindu people of southern India celebrate the three-day festival of Pongal. The first day, called Bhogi Pongal, is celebrated in honor of Lord Indra, whom they refer to as the god of rain. The people give thanks to Indra for a good harvest. They also clean out their homes, scrubbing them from top to bottom and gathering any unwanted or unnecessary household goods and clothing. They build a bonfire and throw the unwanted items into it. Girls sing songs about the gods and the harvest as they dance around the fire.
The second day of the festival is called Surya Pongal. It is considered the most important day of the celebration. People offer prayers to Surya, their sun god, for a bountiful harvest. They boil rice with milk and allow it to boil over. Then they offer it to Surya in thanksgiving.
The third day of the festival is called Mattu Pongal. It is a day for honoring cattle. Cows are thanked for providing milk, and bulls are thanked for helping to plow the fields.
During Mattu Pongal, cattle are washed and their horns are painted in bright colors and decorated with shiny metal caps. Their necks are draped with garlands of flowers or colorful beads. They are then taken to village centers, where people can pay their respects.
In some communities, the festival is extended an extra day to celebrate Kaanum Pongal. It is a ritual performed by women who gather together and offer prayers for the well-being and success of their families.
The people of the African nations of Nigeria and Ghana celebrate yam festivals every September. The festival of Homowo, which means "to hoot at hunger," is celebrated in Ghana, and Iri-Ji, or "New Yams," is celebrated in Nigeria. The people of Ghana and Nigeria depend on the yam harvest as their main source of food.
The two festivals include parades, songs and dancing, drumming, and praising and giving thanks to the gods that are believed to have provided a good harvest. People eat yams prepared in a number of different ways.
So while we as Americans often get dressed up and gather with family and friends to share food, tell stories, offer thanks, and carry on other family traditions, societies around the world engage in similar celebrations.
"Harvest festivals are great examples of cultural diversity and differences between people," notes my dad, Dr. Mason. "But they also show how we are very similar in our core humanity and in the importance we attach to relationships with family and friends, food and its presentation, and our spirituality."