Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Answer: What and why are Thanksgiving traditions?


I wrote the Thanksgiving SRS Challenge before answering the previous one (about  California fire data).  I'll answer that one later this week to catch up.  But today, let's talk about Thanksgiving.  

A painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled 'The First Thanksgiving' shows pilgrims and Native Americans gathering to share a meal. Copyright Library of Congress (CC by Attribution)  As we learned in an earlier SRS post, the first Thanksgiving probably wasn't really like this. 

As you recall, the Challenges this week were apparently fairly simple.  Here are the questions and what I did to find answer to each... 

1.  I know Canada and the US celebrate Thanksgiving each fall.  But do any other countries celebrate Thanksgiving (or equivalent holidays) as well?  If so, what are they called, and when are they celebrated? 

2.  What Thanksgiving (and equivalent) traditions do different countries have?  (I bet they don't all eat turkey with cranberry sauce... that's particularly North American.)   

3.  Speaking of ritual foods (turkey, cranberries, etc.)... what ritual songs are associated with the holidays?  Many other holidays have associated songs--why not Thanksgiving?  What am I missing? 
Here's what I did to answer these Challenges.... 

My first query was: 

     [ countries that celebrate Thanksgiving ] 

Which gave me this result:  

If you follow the link to the page, you'll learn that they have 7 countries listed.  

1. Germany (first Sunday of October).  Erntedankfest is a harvest festival to give thanks for a good harvest.  Preferred foods are specially fattened up chickens (die Masthünchen) and hens (die Poularde), capons, and geese.

2. Japan Kinrō Kansha no Hi the Japanese feast day on November 23. Originally from ancient harvest festival rituals named Niinamesai, the modern meaning is a celebration of hard work and community involvement.

3. Canada – much like the US version but on a different day.  Canada celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.  (In French, it’s  l'Action de grâce.)  It was first celebrated in 1578, when English explorer Martin Frobisher gave thanks in present-day Nunavut. Parliament made it a national holiday in 1879.

4. Grenada version of Thanksgiving is held on October 25 every year, Grenada's Thanksgiving marks the anniversary of the 1983 U.S. military invasion to restore order after the death of communist leader Maurice Bishop. American soldiers who were stationed in the country told the locals about the upcoming US Thanksgiving holiday. To show their own gratitude, Grenadians surprised the soldiers with meals like those they described, complete with turkey and all the fixings.

5. Liberia celebrates a version of the US Thanksgiving (recall that Liberia was founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from the U.S.  Here, it’s celebrated with cornucopias (literally!) of fruit baskets (bananas, papayas, mangoes, and pineapples).

6. Leiden (in the Netherlands) celebrates a version of Thanksgiving in recognition of the early Dutch migrants who left Leiden in the early 1600 for the New World.  Today, the people of Leiden celebrate a Thanksgiving day on the fourth Thursday of November with cookies and coffee following a non-demoninational church service.

7.  Norfolk Island (a remote island in the South Pacific between near Australia also owes its Thanksgiving holiday to visiting U.S. whalers visiting the region in the middle 1890s.  Today, on the last Wednesday of November, the locals bring fruit and vegetables to the church to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. 

But if you change the query slightly (change "countries" to "nations") you'll find that the result says that there are 9 countries that celebrate some form of Thanksgiving.  

     [ nations that celebrate thanksgiving ] 

In this result (from, there are a couple of additions: 

8.  China celebrates an annual holiday ("Chung Chiu"on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar (in 2018, it was on September 24). The celebration, known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, typically falls in late September or early October, when the moon is big and bright. (Note that the Chinese holiday is much older than the American version. The holiday’s roots can be traced back more than 2,500 years, long before Europeans ever set foot in the new world.) 
 9.  South Korea celebrates  a holiday known as Chuseok Day.  Held in mid-to-late September, it’s a family holiday with a meal together and special memories of ancestors. 

So... why the differences?  Because each answer is generated by extracting a block of text (an "answer") to a question (that is, your query) that best matches.  In this case, the difference between nation and country was enough to find two rather different answers from question-answering pages.  

If you keep varying the details of the queries, you'll find a bunch of other harvest-time traditions.  As you read, you have to ask yourself... what actually counts as a Thanksgiving festival?  

For instance, it's pretty clear that place like the Phillipines, Viet Nam, and Saint Lucia all have roughly equivalent holidays.  Places like Brazil have a holiday called "Dia de Ao de Graas" which is also held on the fourth Thursday in November--but it's not celebrated by the entire nation.  So.. is that a Thanksgiving holiday, or no?  Likewise, Malaysia celebrates  the Kadazan Harvest festival.  

These area all harvest parties / holidays of one form or another.  Whether or not you call them all Thanksgiving is up to you.  I'm thankful they're all there.  (I hope to visit a few over the next couple of years!)  

And of COURSE I did [ Thanksgiving Wikipedia ] to see what the Wiki sources said.  (It was interesting, but not profoundly different than what I found with these queries.)  

The last question (about Thanksgiving songs) was a huge surprise, although it was a simple query:  

     [ Thanksgiving songs ] 

that led me to this relatively full set of songs!  

I certainly had no idea that there were so many Thanksgiving songs.  Perhaps we need to start a new tradition of Thanksgiving caroling!  

Of course, seeing this made me wonder about the history of Thanksgiving songs, so I did a bit more exploring.  Searching with this query on Google Books gives a nice set of scanned songs (here I quoted the phrase to give me high quality results on just that phrase):  

and when did the query: 

     [ Thanksgiving music ] 

I found that there was a long tradition of Thanksgiving music, now lovingly preserved in the Library of Congress archives.  

While searching through this list of songs, I managed to stumble across this intriguing entry

... which points out that (this is an excerpt from the card): 

"In general, it would look as if music played a less important function in celebrating Thanksgiving than it does at Christmas and Easter.  Most hymn books, of course, have harvest and Thanksgiving hymns and there is a scattering of anthems and cantatas.  Unfortunately, few of these appear in our card catalog, and we have found no bibliography of the subject, either compiled here or elsewhere…. But in general, digging for material on the subject is likely to be frustrating and unrewarding…"


Of course, now that we live in an Internet age,  it's pretty easy to do a search on Google Books for: 

     [ Thanksgiving hymnal ] 

and find LOTS of hymns of Thanksgiving, such as this one from the Congregational Psalmist Hymnal (1886): 

Even Wikipedia had a section on Thanksgiving songs.  Who knew?  

Research Lessons  

A few search lessons to emphasize here: 

1. Vary the search terms.  As you saw, "nation" vs. "country" can give different results.  As a general strategy, I often will do slightly different versions of a query in order to get a sense of the range of answers.  I rarely do only one query.  

2. Read widely.  In keeping with the "vary the query" suggestion, read more than one result.  It's worth checking out all of the results on the first page (at least read the snippets).  You can do this quickly by opening up several of the results in parallel tabs.  (CMD+click on a link on a Mac opens the link in a new tab.  Right click or CONTROL+click on a PC.)  

3. Always check Wikipedia for breadth.   It's easy and quick... and sometimes you'll get surprised.  

4. When searching for historical topics, check historical sites.  I did this by searching in Google Books, and in particular, checking for hymnals on the Books site to get a sense of the depth of the topic.  And, in particular, checking the is a fast and handy way to get another perspective on your topic from an archivist's eye.  

Search on!