Har­vest cel­e­brated around the world

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Ed­i­tor’s Note: This col­umn orig­i­nally ap­peared in 2002.

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.

Jewish rites

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.

Har­vest Home

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.

United States

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.

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