Throughout the course of
mankind's history, the Earth's bountiful harvest has been celebrated with
ceremonies of giving thanks. Prior to the establishment of formal
religions, many ancient tillers of the ground believed that their crops
contained spirits...spirits which caused the crops to grow and to die. The
belief was also strong that these spirits would be released when the crops
were harvested. Therefore, they had to be destroyed or they would wreak
revenge upon the harvesting farmers. Some of these ancient rituals
celebrated the defeat of such spirits. As time went by the perspective
shifted from rituals to defeat spirits to the realization that the fall
harvest must take an agricultural society through winter, and thus is
vitally important for survival. Whatever power provides that bounty
deserves praise. So cultures the world over - Greeks, Romans,
Hebrews, Chinese and Egyptians have all given thanks for a bountiful
harvest. They might have differed in their forms and presentations. But
their spirit - setting aside a date to reflect on life's blessings,
remains the same. We have tried to provide a kaleidoscope, depicting the
spectra of celebration as practiced by these different cultures.
A similar festival was
held in Ancient Greece, in honor of the goddess who taught mankind to tend
the soil, during a month known as Pyanopsion (Puanepsion), according to
the lunisolar calendar of the Athenians. Since our calendar is solar, the
month doesn't exactly match, but Pyanopsion would be, more or less,
October into November.
daughter, Persephone, was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld.
Demeter, the source of all growth and life, withdrew her powers from the
earth during her time of grief. Demeter's refusal to eat or feed the world
until the other gods arranged a satisfactory resolution to her conflict
with Hades over Persephone brought on winter and no plants or grains could
grow. Because Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds given to her by
Hades, she was condemned by the gods to spending half of the year in the
underworld and half of the year upon the earth with Demeter. Every year
when Persephone is in the underworld, there is winter, when she is on the
earth there is spring and summer.
On the 11-13 of
Pyanopsion, Greek matrons took a break from their usually homebound lives.
They participated in the autumn sowing (Sporetos) festival known as
Thesmophoria. Although the practices are a mystery, the matrons appear to
have symbolically relived the anguish of Demeter and to have asked for her
help in obtaining a bountiful harvest. After her resolution with
Hades , Demeter gave the gift of agriculture to mankind and every year
after her reunion with her with her daughter, Demeter blesses the crops.
The ancient Greeks
worshipped Demeter as their goddess of all grains. Each autumn the
festival of Thesmosphoria was held to honor the goddess.
The first day of the
Thesmophoria itself was Anodos, the ascent. Married women, with all the
supplies they would need for two nights and three days, they ascended a
hill - Thesmophorion (the hillside sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros).
Then they would build leafy shelters and furnish them with couches made
with plants and then slept in these two-person leafy huts.
The second day of the
Thesmophoria was the Nesteia (Fast) when women fasted. They may also have
whipped each other with bark scourges.
The third day of the
Thesmophoria was the Kalligeneia (Fair Offspring). Commemorating Demeter's
torchlight search for her daughter Persephone, there was a night-time
torch light ceremony. A feast was held and offerings to the goddess
Demeter were made - gifts of seed corn, cakes, fruit, and pigs. It was
hoped that Demeter's gratitude would grant them a good harvest.
celebration of Cerelia, a harvest festival, was dedicated to the honor of
Ceres (Demeter). Daughter of Saturn and Ops, and the wife of Jupiter, she
was their goddess of corn (from which the word cereal comes). The same
Greek mythology of Proserpina (Prosphene) her daughter's abduction by
Pluto (Hades) is also found in the Roman beliefs and forms the basis of
Cerelia. It was also an autumnal festival held each year on October 4th
but some put the date at April 12th and 14th, and hence coinciding with
the arrival of spring with the return of Prosphene back to her mother
Ceres. Whatever be the date offerings of the first fruits of the harvest
and pigs were made to Ceres. The celebration included music, parades,
games and sports and a thanksgiving feast.
Jewish families also
celebrate a harvest festival which they call Sukkoth. Taking place each
autumn, the Hebrew Sukkoth has been celebrated for over 3000 years and is
known by two names: Hag ha Succot, meaning "Feast of the
Tabernacles" and Hag ha Asif, meaning "Feast of
Ingathering." Sukkoth begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of
Tishri, five days afterYom Kippur...the most solemn day of the Jewish
Sukkoth takes its name
from succots, the huts in which Moses and the Israelites lived as they
wandered the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land.
Succots were made of branches and were easy to assemble, take apart and
celebrating Sukkoth, which lasts for eight days, the Jewish people build
small huts of branches which recall the tabernacles of their ancestors.
These huts are constructed only to serve as temporary shelters. The
branches are not driven into the ground and the roof is covered with
foliage which is spaced to allow light to filter through. Inside the huts
are hung fruits and vegetables, including apples, grapes, corn and
pomegranates. On the first two nights of Sukkoth, families eat their meals
in the huts beneath the evening sky.
The ancient Chinese
celebrated their harvest festival, known as Chung Ch'ui, with the full
moon that fell on the 15th day of the 8th month. This day was considered
the birthday of the Moon and special "moon cakes," round and
yellow like the moon, would be baked. Each cake was stamped with the
picture of a rabbit since it was a rabbit, and not a man, which the
Chinese perceived to be on the face of the Moon. Families would gather
together to partake of a thanksgiving meal, feasting on roasted pig,
harvested fruits and the "moon cakes." It was believed that
during the three-day festival of Chung Ch'ui, flowers would fall from the
Moon and those who saw them would be rewarded with good fortune.
According to legend,
Chung Ch'ui was also an occasion to give thanks for another special
occasion. China had been conquered by enemy armies who took control of
native homes and provisions. The Chinese found themselves homeless and
without food. Many of them staved. In order to free themselves they
decided to attack the invaders.
The women baked special
"moon cakes" which were distributed to every family. Each cake
contained a secret message indicating the time to attack. The invaders
were so surprised at the unexpected assault that they were easily
defeated. Every year "moon cakes" are said to be eaten in memory
of this magnificent victory.
ancient Egyptians celebrated their harvest festival in honor of
Min, God of Vegetation and Fertility. The festival of Min was held
during the springtime...the Egyptian's harvest season. It featured
a parade in which even the Pharaoh took part. After the parade a
great feast was held complete with music, dancing, and sports.
When Egyptian farmers harvested their corn, they wept and
pretended to be grief-stricken in order to deceive the spirit
which they believed dwelt within the corn. If this was not done,
they feared that the spirit would become angry when they cut down
the corn in the place where it lived.
This was a brief glimpse of the
overwhelming unity in the spirit of the thanksgiving celebration in all
ancient cultures across the world. Prayer, parade, feast and the fervor
are common to most of them, though the mode of celebration differs. Today,
Annual Days of Thanksgiving are celebrated in the United States, Canada,
Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Laos, Liberia, Puerto Rico, Guam,
Grenada and the Virgin Islands. Let us celebrate the true spirit of