Offering Thanks: Japan, Thailand and the US

Welcome. This month we look at a few celebrations around the world, all of which occur in November.

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, we’ll 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.

Tori-No-Ichi, Japan

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. It’s all in the hope of good fortune for the coming holiday season and beyond. In celebrating Tori-no-ichi, folks are taking no chances; they’re 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 salaryman’s 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.

Whenever a ceremonial rake is sold, the merchants break out into this chant.

Professor Stuart Picken directs the International Christian University’s Japan Studies Program in Tokyo.

Loy Krathong, Thailand

This month, on a night of the full moon, a migrating crane flying over Thailand’s waterways would see them aglow with floating lights. When the Thais begin their observance of Loy Krathong, they’ll gather in the evening along their country’s riverbanks. With a prayer for a year of good fortune, they’ll 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. It’s 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 country—its water.

Nat Boonthanakit, of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, explains the custom of wishing on a floating candle.

Like a necklace of light, krathongs float downstream.

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.

So it’s 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.

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 Wampanoag—early allies of the English—observed Thanksgiving meals throughout the year.

The early colonists relied on the kindness of Indians, according to ethnobotanist and food historian Barrie Kavasch of the Institute for American Indian Studies in Connecticut and a 15th-generation descendant of Pocahontas. I asked her what those “first feasts” of Thanksgiving might have been like.

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. It’s mostly a symbolic gesture; the Big Easy’s 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.

Here’s an excerpt of a gospel hymn recorded at the Rhodes Funeral Home on the morning of All Saints’ Day. The singer is Lyle Henderson, accompanied by pianist Nathan Weathersby. (2:04)

Christians around the world observe All Saints’ Day, with each region often having its own local flavor. New Orleans’ shares some similarities with Mexico’s 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 Louisiana’s Fleming Cemetery. An hour’s 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 it’s still possible to find an old shard or two of broken pottery lying about. Many of the grave plots are strewn with white clamshells.

It’s become the custom here for folks to bring boxes of jars and candles that they’ve 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’ Day—the day of the dead—and on this eve, Fleming glows with a constellation of mini-altars, giving the place a magical aura. It’s 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.

—Jim Metzner