As Americans, we celebrate our harvest season with a daylong turkey feast, loads of football (both on TV and in our backyards) and phenomenal parades where massive balloon creatures take over urban thoroughfares. But we aren’t the only country with an interesting autumn festival. Here is a snapshot of how five other cultures give thanks:
August Moon Festival in China
When: Fifteenth Day of the eighth lunar month
“Chung Ch’ui”, also called the August Moon Festival or the Mid-Autumn Festival, is one of the most celebrated Chinese holidays. Each year, Chinese families come together in late September or early October to celebrate Chang’e, the moon goddess. They don’t feast on twenty-pound turkeys and canned cranberry sauce, however. Instead, families gather under the full moon, indulge in moon cakes—round, yellow pastries filled with lotus seed paste and watch dancing dragons and lions.
Pongal in India
Pongal is a popular harvest festival in southern India. Held in mid-January, it marks the end of winter and the beginning of Uttarayan, the season when the sun moves north. During the four-day celebration, homes are cleaned and decorated with intricate kolam (rice paste) designs. Old clothes are burned in a fire, and gifts like sun sculptures or household goods are exchanged. Throughout the celebration, villagers pay their respects to the sun, rain, earth and farm animals. Cattle are bathed and decorated and, on the last day, cooked rice on banana leaves is left outside for the birds.
Cerelia in Rome
When: the beginning of October
Romans knew how to party. Every year the Romans threw a huge fall festival in honor of Ceres, the goddess of corn. They collected the first fruits of the harvest as an offering to Ceres and used them to prepare a huge feast. But the party didn’t stop there. There were musicians, parades, games and sporting events—and maybe even a hunky gladiator or two, though I didn’t find that in my research.
When: the end of September or beginning of October, depending on the year
Sukkot is a week-long harvest festival and religious holiday filled with solemn prayer and joyous celebration. Every fall Jewish families come together to commemorate the freeing of the Jewish slaves by the Egyptians and the bounty of the harvest. Sukkot is the plural of “sukkah”, a booth or tabernacle. During the festival, many people build their own sukkah, a three-sided tent reminiscent of those that Moses and the Jews lived in while they wandered the Egyptian desert. Throughout the holiday, many families eat meals in their sukkah, and some even sleep there.
When: December 26th to January 1st
Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa forty-six years ago in an effort to bring African Americans together as a community. Kwanzaa honors ancient African culture by reviving the year-end harvest festivals of peoples such as the Ashanti and the Zulu.
The seven-day celebration spans the week between Christmas and New Year’s, with each day honoring a different principle and symbol of Kwanzaa. The Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, are a set of ideals selected by Dr. Karenga to represent the seven basic values of African society and reinforce the key building blocks for a healthy African community. The seven key principles include umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (a sense of purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). In addition to the seven principles, there are seven symbols. They are the kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), kinara (candleholder), mazao (fruits, nuts and vegetables), mishumaa saba (the seven candles), mkeka (mat), vibunzi (ear of corn) and zawadi (gifts).
Families gather on December 31st for a giant feast called karamu with dishes featuring sesame seeds, peanuts, sweet potatoes, collard greens and spicy sauces. Both houses and people are decorated in red, black and green, the colors of the festival, and many households display African art.