Celebrating Thanksgiving with stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie may be uniquely American. But from ancient Egypt to medieval Europe and modern-day China, festivals of thanksgiving have been a part of many different cultures.
The Egyptians gave thanks for their bounty in April, during the season of the grain harvest. It honored Min, the god of fertility, and was celebrated with a procession to Min’s temple in which the Pharaoh took part, plus singing, dancing and feasting.
Thesmophoria was the Greek harvest festival. It was held in autumn in honor of Demeter, goddess of corn. On the first day of the three-day festival, women built shelters of leafy branches to invite Demeter to visit. On the second day the Greeks fasted. The third day brought feasting and offerings to Demeter. The Greeks also held thanksgiving ceremonies for special favors, such as victory in battle.
The ancient Romans gave thanks to Ceres, goddess of cereal crops, at the harvest festival of Cerelia, which included games in the Roman sports arena. A second harvest festival Consualia was celebrated with horse and chariot races on August 21 to honor Consus, god of the grain harvest.
For thousands of years the Chinese have celebrated Chung Ch’ui at the time of the autumn moon in the eighth month of the Chinese calendar. Moon cakes are a traditional part of their celebration feast, along the first fruits of the harvest. Legend holds that moon cakes originated during a time when the Mongols had invaded China. To organize a surprise attack against the invaders, Chinese villagers cooked messages into moon cakes and distributed them around the village.
Since ancient times, Jewish people have celebrated the thanksgiving harvest festival of Sukkot, also known as Feast of the Tabernacles and Feast of the Ingathering. The eight-day festival also commemorates the 40 years the Jews spent with Moses wandering in the desert before arriving at the Promised Land. During their wanderings, they sheltered in temporary huts called sukkah, built to resemble their traditional tabernacles. Many Jews celebrate the festival by building huts of branches and hanging apples, grapes and other fruits inside.
Since Medieval times, harvest festivals of thanks have been celebrated in Europe. In the English festival of Harvest Home, the last wagon-load of grain to be brought in was decorated with ribbons and flowers. Villagers would dance around the wagon singing songs of thanks. A feast was held once all the grain was stored.
Native Americans have long offered thanks to the creator and to the spirits of the animals they used for food. The Wampanoags, who feasted with the Pilgrims in their historic 1621 Thanksgiving, had traditionally celebrated their own harvest festival of Nickommo with gifts, feasting, dancing and games.
When immigrants first began arriving on the North American continent in the 1500s, they held their own thanksgiving feasts. History records several festivals celebrated by Spanish explorers and colonists and a small group of French Huguenots during those years.
Members of the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, held a thanksgiving feast 1610. The feast was celebrated after a shipload of supplies arrived, ending the famine of their first winter.