Thanksgiving in Ireland?

It's all about the definition of the term ...

traditional colonial thanksgiving dinner at colonial williamsburg virginia

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Thanksgiving is the big family feast in Northern America, celebrated on different day by both the United States and Canada. So is Thanksgiving in Ireland really a thing? Or is the holiday even known across the pond? Thanksgiving as it is known in the United States, with a late November feast starring a turkey, doesn't exist in Ireland. However, there are some mid-autumn harvest festivals that are still celebrated on the Emerald Isle which have similar origins to an American Thanksgiving.

A Short History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving as it might be understood by most readers is, after all, a specifically North American celebration. In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October. This has been the rule since 1957, when the Parliament of Canada declared "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October." In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on a later date, namely on the fourth Thursday in November. This date was first fixed in 1863, when US President Abraham Lincoln inaugurated a day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens".

While there are some myths associated with Thanksgiving and the founding of the United States, what these declarations really emphasize is the Christian background of the feast - which would have been much older than the official holiday anyway. Many school children also learn that Thanksgiving exists because it marks historical events and cultural exchanges that took place after European settlers arrived in what we now know as the United States.

Essentially, Thanksgiving is one of the numerous harvest festivals that are celebrated around the world, not only in Christian societies. These feasts are usually connected to the end of the harvest, and generally in autumn. Actually, the word "harvest" itself comes from the Old English hærfest, a word that could mean both autumn in general or "harvest time" in the agricultural calendar. The full moon in September was also known as the "harvest moon" (long before Neil Young used it).

Due to the nature of seasons, harvest festivals are very much dependent on the region you live in (and the crops you harvest). The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is held in late September or early October, the German Erntedankfest on the first Sunday in October.

Irish Harvest Festivals

Thanksgiving is specific to North America as a holiday in which to celebrate the bounty of autumn and to focus on family and friends. While there is no holiday called Thanksgiving in Ireland, there are three celebrations that are linked to autumn harvests in a similar way.

  • Michaelmas on October 29th - near the old "quarter day" of Samhain and traditionally the end and/or beginning of the agricultural year, especially under Anglo-Norman influence. This is very near to today's October Bank Holiday Weekend
  • Samhain or Halloween on October 31st - the end of the Celtic year and the beginning of winter. A feast around which a lot of cattle and other livestock was slaughtered and a lot of food was consumed. 
  • Martinmas or Saint Martin's Day on November 11th - another designated "end of the year" and another feast that involved copious amounts of food.

Today, only Samhain is really observed in Ireland, though it is more and more commonly taking the shape of an Americanized form of Halloween (complete with pumpkins, definitely not a native Irish fruit). That means that the "feast" of Halloween is usually full of processed, sugar-rich foods that could not be further from traditional harvest-time meals.

Thanksgiving in Ireland

Thanksgiving as it exists in the US, with a predictable date in November date, a bank holiday, and traditions like "pardoning" of a single turkey, does not take place in Ireland. The fourth Thursday of November is simply another Thursday on the Emerald Isle. There will be US ex-pats who celebrate Thanksgiving in their own way, as the Chinese community celebrates the Moon festival and Chinese New Year. The idea of Black Friday sales, however, does seem to be catching on in Ireland.

The traditional Irish harvest festivals have also been largely forgotten. Today, Halloween could be said to have replaced the three harvest festivals that were once observed (depending on time and region) in Ireland. 

As with many things in Ireland, holidays are often linked is some way to the church and churches have various ways of giving thanks:

  • The Catholic Church has no designated day set down for a harvest festival or thanksgiving celebration - it is very much down to the local parishes to organize this in their own time.
  • The Church of Ireland also has no designated Sunday set aside for harvest celebrations, yet a service of thanksgiving is generally observed in every parish, with special prayers and often a special charity collection.
  • The Presbyterian Church again has no designated standard Sunday set aside, but generally there would be a celebration in each local community around harvest time.

As for eating a whole turkey? Many Irish families cook this feast for Christmas.

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