From turkey on the table to football on TV, Thanksgiving may appear to be a distinctly all-American tradition. But in fact, a number of other countries and territories around the world celebrate their own versions of the holiday. The dates and customs of each particular nation’s variation of Thanksgiving vary, but most involve family and food—and all are focused on gratitude.
It may surprise you to learn that Canada’s first Thanksgiving celebration actually predates America’s—by more than 40 years. In 1578, an expedition led by the English navigator Martin Frobisher held a ceremony in what is now Nunavut, giving thanks for the safety of their fleet. This is considered the first-ever Thanksgiving celebration in North America, though in fact First Nations (the indigenous peoples of Canada) and Native Americans had been holding harvest festivals long before Europeans arrived. Loyalists who moved to Canada during the Revolutionary War introduced turkey, along with some other customs from the American Thanksgiving. Canada’s Parliament formally established a national Thanksgiving Day (November 6) in 1879; as of 1957, the date was changed to the second Monday in October. Thanksgiving traditions in Canada look very similar to American ones, including eating turkey and watching football (the Canadian Football League holds an annual Thanksgiving Day Classic) with family.
The German equivalent of Thanksgiving is Erntedankfest (“harvest festival of thanks”). This religious holiday often takes place on the first Sunday in October, which is often also the first Sunday following Michaelistag (Michaelmas) on September 29; different places mark the occasion on various dates in September and October. Though rural areas take the harvest festival concept more literally, churches in German cities also join in on the celebration, giving thanks for the good fortune their congregations experienced that year. During a typical Erntedankfest, celebrants may carry an Erntekrone (“harvest crown”) of grains, fruit and flowers to the church in a solemn procession, and feast on such hearty fare as die Masthühnchen (fattened-up chickens) or der Kapaun (castrated roosters).
This West African republic may seem an unlikely place for an American-style Thanksgiving tradition, but only until you consider its history. Freed slaves from the United States established Liberia in the early 1820s with help from the American Colonization Society, a private organization that believed returning African Americans to the country of their origins would provide them with greater opportunity, help spread Christianity to Africa and solve the nagging problem of slavery in the United States. In the early 1880s, Liberia’s government passed an act declaring the first Thursday of November as National Thanksgiving Day. Today, it’s a largely Christian holiday: Churches auction off baskets filled with local fruits like papayas and mangoes after their services, and local families feast on the bounty. Instead of turkey and pumpkin, Liberia’s Thanksgiving tables boast items such as spicy roast chicken and mashed cassavas, and live music and dancing are part of the Thanksgiving tradition.
Japan’s variation of Thanksgiving, Kinro Kansha no Hi (Labor Thanksgiving Day) evolved from an ancient rice harvest festival, Niinamesai, the roots of which go back as far as the seventh century A.D. During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the date of the festival was set as November 23, and it has remained the same since then. The modern tradition of Labor Thanksgiving Day began in 1948, just three years after World War II ended, as a celebration of the rights of Japan’s workers. Today, the public observes it as a national holiday, but with none of the huge feasting you’ll see on the American holiday. Instead, labor organizations lead events at which citizens are encouraged to celebrate the principles of hard work and community involvement. To mark the occasion, children often make thank-you cards for policemen, firefighters or other municipal workers.
This remote island in the Pacific Ocean, a former British penal colony and current Australian territory, is another unlikely place for a holiday celebration with American roots. In fact, its Thanksgiving tradition dates back to the mid-1890s, when the American trader Isaac Robinson decided to put on an American-style Thanksgiving service in the All Saints Church in Kingston in order to attract some visiting American whalers to the celebration. His plan worked, and parishioners on the island—otherwise best known for its namesake pine tree—continue to celebrate the holiday today, bringing fruits, vegetables and cornstalks to decorate the church and singing American hymns on the last Wednesday of November each year.
Every October 25, people on this West Indian island celebrate their own Thanksgiving Day, which marks the anniversary of a joint Caribbean and U.S. military invasion of Grenada in 1983. The troops’ arrival restored order after an army coup ousted and executed Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s socialist leader, and put the island under martial law. While stationed on the West Indian island that fall, U.S. soldiers told local citizens about the upcoming American holiday and some of its traditions. To show their own gratitude, many people in towns and villages hosting the soldiers invited them to dine and celebrate with them, even surprising them with such non-native island foods as turkey, cranberry and potatoes. Today, the Grenadian Thanksgiving features formal ceremonies of remembrance in the cities, but largely goes unmarked in more rural areas.
It’s sometimes forgotten that of the English settlers who traveled to the New World on the Mayflower, some 40 percent spent the years 1609 to 1620 living and working in the Dutch city of Leiden. As a result, some have claimed that the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving celebration was actually inspired by Leiden’s annual commemoration of the breaking of the Spanish siege in 1574. In any case, the people of today’s Leiden continue to celebrate their ties with the Mayflower’s passengers by holding non-denominational church services on the fourth Thursday of November.
After Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in the late 19th century, its residents enthusiastically adopted many of the traditions of the holiday. They celebrate it on the same day (fourth Thursday in November) and embrace the same Black Friday shopping craziness on the following day. But Puerto Ricans have put their own twist on the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast: There is usually turkey—whether a roasted, seasoned pavochón or a turkey stuffed with mofongo (a mashed plantain dish)—but roast pork is also a common item on the menu, accompanied with more plaintains, rice and beans.