During the celebration of Loy Krathong, the people of Thailand give prayers of thanks as they place floating offerings on a river. In Japan, merchants chant an anthem of hope for prosperity while wielding ceremonial garden rakes. In New Orleans they practice a unique form of remembering their ancestors on All Saints Day. And as for the great American holiday of Thanksgiving, well, rather than giving a turkey all the glory, well visit with a descendant of Pocahontas and have a taste of what the first Thanksgiving might have been like.
Of the many ways of expressing gratitude, the simplest is to give thanks in advance: For that which we are about to receive. The Japanese practice a pragmatic version of this principle.
Take a walk past certain Tokyo marketplaces or Otori (Shinto) shrines in November, and you may run into a fair where merchants are selling ceremonial bamboo rakes, called kumade, of all sizes. Its all in the hope of good fortune for the coming holiday season and beyond. In celebrating Tori-no-ichi, folks are taking no chances; theyre giving thanks up front in anticipation and hope for a bountiful year.
Tori-no-ichi or fowl market takes place two or three times in November on the fowl days. In the old Japanese calendar, years, days, and even hours are represented by a repeating cycle of 12 animals, including the fowl, or rooster.
The elaborately decorated bamboo rakes are a thinly disguised symbol for every merchant or salarymans dream of raking in piles of yen. But the celebration of Tori-no-ichi is a communal event in which all of an interdependent Japanese society benefits. Whenever the rake merchant makes a sale, he sings out an appeal to a divinity, or kami, to bless the buyer during the coming year.
Loy Krathong, Thailand
This month, on a night of the full moon, a migrating crane flying over Thailands waterways would see them aglow with floating lights. When the Thais begin their observance of Loy Krathong, theyll gather in the evening along their countrys riverbanks. With a prayer for a year of good fortune, theyll release special banana leaf cups, called krathongs, (loy means to float) into the water and watch as they sail away downstream. Usually the cups are filled with incense, a lighted candle, and often coins, and the procession of twinkling candlelight across the water creates a visual spectacle.
One legend has it that about 700 years ago in a city near Bangkok, a maiden known as Noppamas shaped the very first krathong and presented it to her king. Its been an annual festival ever since.
Although the original meaning of the celebration has been obscured by time, the Thai people have developed their own personal significance for the holiday. For many, it has become an opportunity to offer prayers of thanks for the lifeblood of the countryits water.
First American Thanksgiving
According to archaeologists, this time of year we Americans should likely be thanking the native cultures of Central and South America for domesticating the turkey. The fowl that has come to symbolize Thanksgiving was apparently a main dish among pre-Columbian Indians.
In 1621, when some of the first European settlers in America sat down to give thanks for a successful harvest and for their survival in an unfamiliar land, they were simply coming into synch with an ancient local custom. Many tribes in the northeastern United States, including the Narragansett Indians and the Wampanoagearly allies of the Englishobserved Thanksgiving meals throughout the year.
So its not hard to imagine a mixed feast, where the settlers could have expressed their gratitude to the Native Americans, whose knowledge of local foods had made their new life possible.
All Saints Day, New Orleans
The week before All Saints Day (November 1) New Orleans gets ready to say thank you to its ancestors by spiffing up its cemeteries. Its mostly a symbolic gesture; the Big Easys aboveground mausoleums are fairly spotless to begin with (see our January 2000 feature story, City of the Dead). Still, the custom is to whitewash family tombs and leave floral offerings, particularly yellow chrysanthemums.
In old New Orleans, the celebration of All Saints Day would begin with Mass and end with a Thanksgiving-like picnic at the family plot. Nowadays, graveside parties are a less popular event. Folks are more likely to attend a church service followed by a Rosary Walk, where individual tombs are blessed by a priest. Although respectful, the Day of the Dead events that I attended were never maudlin. In New Orleans, a worldly sense of humor is always close at hand to leaven the solemnity.
Christians around the world observe All Saints Day, with each region often having its own local flavor. New Orleans shares some similarities with Mexicos version of the Day of the Dead, where cemeteries in Oaxaca are the settings for all-night celebrations of music and prayer.
On the eve of All Saints Day, there is an informal vigil held at Louisianas Fleming Cemetery. An hours journey from New Orleans, visiting Fleming is like slipping into another time stream, complete with a Louisiana bayou and Spanish moss hanging from stately oaks. There is an ancient Indian burial mound right in the center of the cemetery, and its still possible to find an old shard or two of broken pottery lying about. Many of the grave plots are strewn with white clamshells.
|After the flood, it’s been difficult to track down a number of the people who originally appeared in this story. If anyone knows of their whereabouts, we’d be grateful if you would let us know|
Its become the custom here for folks to bring boxes of jars and candles that theyve collected all year. As the sun sets, every grave is set with a lit candle protected inside a jar. The day after All Saints Day is All Souls Daythe day of the deadand on this eve, Fleming glows with a constellation of mini-altars, giving the place a magical aura. Its a great way to tender thanks and share the feeling of good will.
Last year, one of the visitors to Fleming cemetery was New Orleans social advocate Anna Ross, who told me that every All Saints Day, she makes a promise to herself not to just rest on the laurels of her forebears, but to make sure she will leave her own unique legacy. It brought to mind an old saying: gratitude is not enough. Perhaps giving thanks is part of a larger process of reciprocity, where we respond in kind to the gifts of family, neighbors, and nature. Giving, as they say, begets giving.