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Thanksgiving a newcomer to celebrations of  Earth's bounty

Image: Sukkot
Ultra Orthodox Jews pray with the Four species during the Cohanim prayer (priest's blessing) of Sukkot, or the feast of the Tabernacles, at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on Oct. 16. Thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage of Sukkot, which commemorates the wanderings of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt.Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Autumn festivals, including American Thanksgiving, East Asian Mid-Autumn Festival and Jewish Sukkot, celebrate family and the Earth's bounty in similar ways despite cultural differences.

Of those three, Thanksgiving is the newcomer.

The Pilgrims celebrated a harvest festival with the Native Americans in 1621. And their ancient Anglo-Saxon ancestors also celebrated autumn harvest festivals.

"Our word 'harvest' is a direct reflex of the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, word 'hærfest,' which ... only meant 'autumn.' By extension, the word came to refer to the fruits of the field, brought home for processing," John Niles, emeritus professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison told Discovery News.

But Thanksgiving wasn't an official annual event until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, "...set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

Thanksgiving was new, but may have had an ancient inspiration in Leviticus, a holy book to both Jews and Christians. In Leviticus 23:39, God commanded the ancient Israelites to observe the Feast of Booths, Sukkot in Hebrew, "after you have gathered the crops of the land."

"The Pilgrims were avid Bible readers and Thanksgiving may have been inspired by Sukkot," Miriam Rinn, communications manager for the Jewish Community Center Association, told Discovery News.

"Sukkot is certainly a harvest festival, but also has greater religious significance," said Rinn.

"Thanking God for food (after eating) is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. Like all other Mitzvoth it connects man with God and enhance(s) the spiritual proximity between the two, a sense of mutual love," Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom in Columbia, Missouri told Discovery News.

During Sukkot, celebrated this year from Oct. 12-19, observers worship, eat and even sleep in a sukkah, a flimsy booth representing the temporary structures the Israelites used after fleeing Egypt.

"You cannot appreciate ... protections availed by your home unless you experience being removed from these protections if only briefly and temporarily," said Feintuch.

"The sukkah also represents the transience and fragility of life," said Rinn.

The celebration of the Mid-Autumn, or Moon Festival, in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and other East Asian countries, also involves food and family and friends.

"During the Mid-Autumn Festival people come back home to be with their family. It's one of the biggest holidays," said Gene Cheung, multicultural coordinator of the Asian Affairs Center as the University of Missouri.

The tradition took on special significance for Cheung and his family in 1999, after an earthquake damaged their home in Nantou, Taiwan. They celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival that year visiting with his father's five brothers and six sisters. This year the festival fell on Sept. 12.

And like Thanksgiving's turkey and cranberries, Cheung and his family look forward every year to a special harvest meal that includes the Mid-Autumn Festival moon cake. Traditional moon cakes are soft, sweet pastry with an egg yolk and red bean paste inside, said Cheung.

"When you cut them open, it looks like a half-moon," said Cheung.

The shorter days and longer nights of the harvest season bring about more opportunities to star-gaze and watch the phases of the moon.