Thanksgiving: think football, changing leaves, pilgrims, and the family gathered around the table for an annual feast of . . . moon cakes? If you think America has the market cornered on harvest festivals, think again. People across the globe celebrate the bounty of the annual yield just as Americans do—and have been doing so, in fact, since long before the Pilgrims ever disembarked at Plymouth Rock. Reconnect with your roots through some of these traditional harvest festivals from around the world.
With its deep agrarian roots, the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival celebrates the bounty of the growing season in China. It takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (usually September). Traditionally, celebrants eat delicious round pastries called moon cakes to celebrate the bright harvest moon and a plentiful crop. Some moon cakes still made according to custom, containing a lotus seed or sweet bean paste, some are produced by the likes of Starbucks and Haagen-Dasz. Great children's books about the Moon Festival include The Moon Lady by Amy Tan and Moonbeams, Dumplings and Dragon Boats, a Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities and Recipes by the Children's Museum of Boston.
Yams are the first fruit of the harvest in Ghana and Nigeria, and the annual Yam Festival celebrates the new growing season for this staple food. As it is described in Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, any remaining yams from the old year are first discarded and revelers wash pots, pans and mortars for cooking. The new yams are then offered first to the gods and ancestors in these countries and then distributed to villagers, who also celebrate with traditional music and a procession of chiefs.
Here’s a simple recipe for Yummy Yam Muffins to help your child celebrate this harvest holiday.
What You Need:
- 1 cup cooked mashed yams
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons melted butter
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 eggs
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ cup chopped nuts
What You Do:
- Mix all ingredients until moist
- Preheat to 350 degrees
- Grease muffin tins
- Pour batter into tins and bake for about 25 minutes
The feast day of St. Martin of Tours (also called Martlemas) is celebrated throughout Europe. This celebration takes place on November 11th. As St. Martin was the patron saint of vintners, so his feast day marks the day of the grape harvest. The pagan Irish sprinkled the blood of a pig on their threshold and in the four corners of their house for a festival which eventually merged into St. Martin's Day; today, a pork dinner on St. Martin's Eve suffices. Other customs throughout Europe include games, Martinmas caroling, and lantern processions. Here's a great lantern-making activity to help celebrate Martinmas.
Adult supervision is recommended.
What You Need:
- tin can (16 oz works best)
- votive candle
What You Do:
- First, fill the clean tin can with water—not quite to the top—and freeze it overnight.
- The next day, use the hammer and the nail to carefully punch a pattern of holes into the tin, stopping about an inch and a half from the bottom. Punch two holes near either side of the top. Use the towel to keep a steady hold on the can.
- Let the ice thaw, and then attach the wire to either side of the top holes to make a handle. Make sure the handle is long enough that your hand will be kept safely away from the heat of the candle.
- Fill the bottom of the can with about ½ inch of sand and nestle the votive candle in the sand to keep it stable. Light the candle—you now have your own Martinmas lantern.
Following the paddy harvest, the South Indian Puthari or Huthari is generally prepared for a week in advance beginning in late November. The symbolic first harvest requires special food and decorations and a procession to the paddy fields. Farmers rejoicing in their new gleaning make a pudding of rice and milk, participate in traditional folk singing and dancing, and bind together small paddy strand bunches of the first cuttings for good tidings. Many regions of India have similar harvest celebrations to Puthari. Try the children’s book Gita Will Be a Dancer: A Picture Book for Children on Classical Indian Dance in English and Hindi by Barbara Fischer to share with them the beauty of Indian dance, one of the primary ways to celebrate this holiday. Shenaaz Nanji’s Indian Tales also makes accessible to children the customs and folklore from all regions of India.
This festival takes place in late summer on the island of Aguni (near Okinawa) and invokes double blessings—one for a bountiful harvest, one for the safe delivery of infants on the island. The celebration of this small island has gained fame by being featured in a popular Japanese movie, Nabbie's Love. Aguni may be named for a Japanese chestnut—it was once a growing center—so celebrate the bounty of this tiny Japanese island and make some traditional Japanese chestnut rice.
What You Need:
- 3 cups of white rice
- 3 ½ cups of water
- About 12 ounces of chestnuts
- 2 tsp. mirin (a rice wine)
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- Mushrooms or carrots (optional)
*You can substitute Kosher salt for sea salt or rice vinegar and a bit of sugar for mirin if preferred.
What You Do:
- Roast the chestnuts (around 350-375 degrees) for up to 40 minutes.
- Carefully remove the chestnut shells using a knife.
- Wash the rice in a pot and add to it the 3 ½ cups of water, the mirin, the salt, and the chestnuts.
- Cover; cook for 15 minutes until water is absorbed. Add mushrooms or carrots for flavor and texture, fluff and serve.
Green Corn Ceremony
This is actually a blanket term for rites celebrated by Eastern Woodlands and Southeastern Tribes in late summer. Many tribes celebrate both the new corn—by far their most reliable crop—and the new year. In the Muskogee culture, the Green Corn Ceremony involves a community fast to help participants spiritually prepare to receive the blessings of the harvest. Because of the emphasis on new beginnings, forgiveness and purification are important themes of these celebrations. The Cherokee have a Mature Green Corn Ceremony around 45 days after the first Green Corn Ceremony which also involves rituals for cleansing and feasts. The Cherokee are known for their masks; while theirs were made of wood, children can easily make their own Green Corn masks out of brown paper bags or brown construction paper (to replicate the wood of the “real” masks), markers and crayons to decorate, and string to tie it on. Cherokee Indians use fur and feathers to indicate the person or animal they are representing through the mask, and children could easily use the same materials for the same purpose.
Technology, travel and immigration have brought many of these ceremonies to the United States. While their foods may be blessed in tongues foreign to us and fellow revelers may pass rice pudding instead of stuffing across their tables this fall, we all share one thing in common—a desire to give thanks and share in the joy of community and family.