Gospel & Culture blog
Across the USA on the fourth Thursday of November, grandparents, in-laws and families will be gathering to eat foods they don't usually eat: Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, yams and cranberry sauce (below, you can post your favorites that I may have left of the list). Some will remember to thank God, the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17). But what about US Americans who are overseas? How will they celebrate? I asked some Biola students who are scattered around the world what they do for Thanksgiving. One in Thailand said her expatriate (US) community usually goes out to a steakhouse or buffet together. Others, including one student in Mongolia and one who split time between Indonesia and South Korea, attempt to mimic the full Thanksgiving meal, but sometimes have to substitute the turkey with chickens. A student in Hong Kong said:
We do it up in a major way. We pull our kids out of school and gather American friends (and others who are interested) and try and pull out all the stops. Used to be finding the biggest chickens available to roast but turkey is more common than it used to be. It’s a chance to show hospitality, connect children to American tradition and spend a day together.
Dr Tom Sappington, associate professor of theology and missions at Biola University said when his family was in Indonesia they invited many Indonesian friends to experience an American Thanksgiving with all the trimmings. "Our Indonesian guests loved it, but one felt like he still needed to get rice on the way back to his home, since you haven't eaten, unless you've had rice."
On the other hand, some US Americans abroad deliberately skip Thanksgiving, if their host culture doesn't celebrate it. A missionary to the south Pacific said, "What do we do when we're abroad for Thanksgiving? Pretend we're not Americans." Another missionary said, "I try not to think about Thanksgiving when we're overseas...too sad to be away from home at that time."
A borrowed holiday?
Of course, US Americans don't have a monopoly on Thanksgiving- especially in this global age of culture-sharing. Canadians celebrate a Thanksgiving feast much like US Americans do, on the Second Monday of October. But most people may be unaware that Canadian Thanksgiving is actually older than the version in the USA, having been brought over in the 16th century by missionaries from Europe. "And we don't have the connection to shopping, like Black Friday in the States," explained Dr Michael Lessard-Clouston, a Canadian who is professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. Since moving to the USA, his family has celebrated two Thanksgivings in the fall - on both the Canadian and US dates.
Yes, Thanksgiving, as many Americans know it, is actually a European holiday, especially German and Dutch. Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1574 in Leiden, Netherlands, after the city survived a period of famine. Erntedankfest (giving-thanks festival) is the harvest celebration in Western Germany, and includes parades and fireworks on the first Sunday in October. A less religious version, the beer-festival known as Oktoberfest, is more widely celebrated at the same time. In fact, many countries with German diaspora celebrate Oktoberfest.
Thanksgiving has also been re-imagined by communities that were marginalized during the early colonial era Emancipated slaves brought American Thanksgiving to Liberia when they began re-settling Western Africa. The official date of Thanksgiving in Liberia is the first Thursday of November.
Pagan harvest ritual?
Thanksgiving, even the Christian-European version, is actually a version of a nearly global phenomenon known as harvest rituals. Throughout tribal communities, the Southern Hemisphere, the annual harvest is celebrated in March and April (their spring). In Vanuatu, clans celebrate the yam harvest by offering first fruits to the magician who is responsible for a good crop yield. Christians in Vanuatu offer their first fruits in church. rather than to the tribal magicians. In fact, the redemption of a pagan harvest ritual is a global phenomenon. For example ChinaSource reported on Lahu Christians in Yunnan province who offered their first fruits in church at the fall harvest.
There are several versions of harvest rituals in Asia (and by Asian communities in diaspora around the globe): At the full moon in mid-autumn, many Han Chinese swap moon cakes during the Moon Festival. Starbucks has capitalized on the event, selling espresso, caramel and hazelnut mooncakes. "Because it's a holiday, people have time to go visit their relatives. In fact, Chinese refer to a full moon as a 'round' moon; and the word round, in Chinese, is relate to the word for 'reunify,' so we reunite at that time," explained Dr John Liang, professor of Applied Linguistics at Biola University. However, Liang told me, his family has not celebrated the moon festival since moving to the USA. "My kids don't even like the taste of the moon cakes- they're too sweet, or have eggs in them." "Sometimes Chinese people say these moon cakes are like American fruit Cakes" Dr. Jamie Sanchez, assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at Biola University, commented.
Sanchez also explained that it can be too reductive to simply refer to the mid-autumn festival as "Chinese Thanksgiving", since there are substantial differences. Besides, "who is to say that the Moon festival is like our Thanksgiving. Maybe our Thanksgiving is like their Moon festival, which is, after all 2000 years older."
South Koreans eat small rice cakes called Songpyeon (송편) on Chuseok Day, an Autumn harvest holiday. Dr. Eunice Hong, adjunct professor at Biola's Cook School of Intercultural Studies, said many Koreans return to their hometowns for the three day holiday to enjoy cooking, eating, and bowing to their deceased ancestors. "Because I grew up here in the United States (and because we are Christians), we do not observe it quite like those in Korea. Ancestors worship is very important to Koreans (traditionally), but because we follow Christ, we do not bow down to the ancestors. So here in the States, we go visit our relatives, the women cook in the kitchen all day and in the evening we eat tons of tradition Korean food, but that's about it!"
Vietnamese celebrate a fall harvest Têt-Trung-Thu similar to China's moon festival. Michael Souter explains it is "the Children’s Festival, is held as a way for parents, once busy with the harvest, to make amends with their children who may have felt neglected." One Vietnamese-American blogged about how his family hybridized their own culinary preferences with American Thanksgiving.
So here's one more thing to be thankful for this year: The many ways people around the globe have celebrated bounty, and have celebrated each other. What's on the menu, and the date of the celebration, isn't the important thing. Above all, God delights when we praise Him for his goodness to us all year round (Psalm 147:11).
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor