Thursday, November 22, 2012

Answer: A thousand years of Thanksgiving?

Remember, the question was: Can you find another country that has celebrated a annual Thanksgiving festival in November more-or-less continually for at least the past 1000 years? 

I got to thinking about this because I know that other countries around the world have their own November harvest festivals, and I actually wondered which had been going on the longest.  So I started by asking the query about Thanksgiving festivals in general, fully expecting to start broadly and then filter out the ones that weren’t in November. 

[ thanksgiving festivals other countries ]

Another approach would have been to look for a list of harvest festivals:

[ list harvest festivals ]

That gives me quite a list.  (And somehow, I knew that Wikipedia would have such a list of harvest festivals.)  

For instance, there’s Chu Suk (or Chuseok) in Korea (usually in September); Kadazan  (or Tadau ka'amatan) in Malaysia (May); Pongal in India (January) and many more—but relatively few of them are in November! 

So solving this search challenge is really about first collecting all of the possible celebrations, then testing each to see which satisfy our conditions. 

I started my search by opening up each of the festivals in the Wikipedia list and checking dates.  Only a few qualify.  And of those, only a few have been going on for so long. 

Of the Thanksgiving-like November festivals that have going continuously for at least 1000 years, only two seem to qualify:  

(1)  St. Martin's Day (also known as the Feast of St. Martin, Martinstag or Martinmas) qualifies—it’s been going since the 4th century in central Europe and has lots of associated rituals and ritual foods eaten at the time.  Goose is most common dish, but half-pretzels, wine and other pastries are all associated with the story. 

(2) The only other festival I was able to find was the Japanese Thanksgiving Festival Niiname Sai – 新嘗祭 – also spelled as “niinamesai.”

Since this is all in Japanese, I had to do a bit of work to get reasonably accurate background information.  So when I did my searches, I checked both “Niiname sai” and “Niinamesai” AND I checked with the Japanese name as well.

My first search was for: 

 [Niiname Sai ] 

and I found a wonderful few books on harvest festivals and the Japanese festival in particular.  The first I checked was Thanksgiving and Other Harvest Festivals by Ann Morrill  (in Books) -  which told me that this festival is held on November 23rd, and was recently (in the 1940s) combined with a celebration of labor to create the modern version “Labor Thanksgiving Day.” 

Since one book was useful, I kept looking at other books, using Google Books to find that  “Matsuri: The Festivals of Japan” (Herbert Plustschow) HAS the word “Niiame” in it, but--alas--I needed to go to (and login) to read the text.  There I learned that in the festival celebration, the Emperor  makes an “offering of first fruit to sun deity Amaterasu”   (meaning, the first rice harvested from seedlings he planted himself). 

Again, in Google Books, I find “Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time”  Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (1994) which tells me that the niiname festival originally meant “the tasting of new crops” (name “to taste”; nii “new”) (p 46)  

This book also points out that the first reference to Niinamesai dates from reign of the legendary emperor Jinmu, who is said to have reigned from 660 BC to 585 BC.  (I did a quick search to find that Jinmu, also Jimmu 神武天皇, is traditionally thought of as the first emperor of Japan. )

Whether or not he was legendary, the practice of Niinames Sai was certainly formalized by 484 AD, as mentioned in the Nihonshoki book (classical Japanese history text) of the 22cnd emperor, Seinei (480-484 AD).

This was interesting and suggested that Niiname Sai has been going on for a long time.  So I did a search for

 [ niiname Jinmu ] 

and found the book,  Monarchies: What Are Kings and Queens For?  in Google Books, by Tom Bentley, James Wilsdon, James Wilsdon, which explained that Jinmu, although apparently a fiction, there WAS someone around that time that did some remarkable things... including establishing a harvest festival called niiname sai!   This leaves the start of the Thanksgiving holiday in Japan somewhat open, but I'm willing to bet it's at least two millenia.  

Answers:    There are at least 2 answers to this search challenge:  First is Martinmas, celebrated in Central Europe with roast goose, to commemorate the sacrifices of Saint Martin, who was supposedly given away by a honking goose, which is why they’re eaten.

And second, Niiname Sai, celebrated in Japan since 585 BC with the first rice harvested that year. 

Search lessons:  Sometimes you have to look through a long list of options, excluding possibilities.  I tend to open up all of my options in separate tabs (by control-clicking on the link) and then evaluating whether or not they satisfy my criteria. 

I also used Books quite a bit to answer my questions.  Why Books?  Mostly because there are a LOT of low-quality sites around the topic of festivals, and I was really looking for something that has persisted for millennia.  That is, I know from general knowledge of sociology, the topic of books.  I’d guessed (rightly) that many people would have written about the history and practice of these traditional festivals.  And I just didn’t want to deal with all of the advertising literature about why visiting this exotic location would give you the TRUE experience of Thanksgiving. 

One of the things I’m thankful for this year is all of the scholarship that countless writers have put out there into our collectively accessible store.  For all that time and effort they spent, I can know more about the world.  Thanks, authors and writers everywhere!

Searching on, thankfully.  Have a great Thanksgiving!  (Or whatever your ritual harvest festival might be!!) 

1 comment:

  1. Mr Russell said:
    "I tend to open up all of my options in separate tabs (by control-clicking on the link) and then evaluating whether or not they satisfy my criteria."

    This takes too long.
    I use the following Chrome extension to open a bunch of links in one gesture.
    --- "open, copy or bookmark multiple links at the same time."