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Thanksgiving's many faces worldwide

When the Pilgrims sat down to eat with some 90 Indians in the autumn of 1621, they did not set out to accomplish anything extra-ordinary. For centuries - in the New World and the Old - cultures had expressed thanks to God at harvest time. And the Pilgrims didn't even call their feast Thanksgiving.

What they did do was inspire future generations and add spark to a movement that today is slowly gaining momentum around the globe.

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*In March, representatives of 10 major religions from 33 nations met in Dallas to discuss the importance of Thanksgiving. Among their conclusions: "We see the need throughout the world for a thankful spirit that can heal the new century."

*In Belfast, Northern Ireland, where peace hangs in the balance, a local community group is developing a thanksgiving initiative.

*Next year, the United Nations kicks off the "International Year of Thanksgiving." In passing the resolution two years ago, the General Assembly affirmed "that such an expression of gratitude will bring together national and international efforts to achieve full tolerance and strengthen universal peace and international cooperation."

The movement is not a US export but rather a search for common ground, its leaders say.

"People express thanksgiving in many, many different ways," says Luis Dolan, a Roman Catholic priest in New York who helped persuade the UN to recognize a year of thanksgiving. "Just as we have a culture for peace, we want a culture of thanksgiving to bring it into daily experience."

"Thanksgiving itself is a spiritual quality," adds Elizabeth Espersen, executive director of the Thanks-Giving Foundation, a private, nonprofit interreligious and education facility based in Dallas. "It belongs to all the people. But it needs nurturing and care if it's going to grow in someone's spirit."

Besides the United States, six nations officially recognize a day of Thanksgiving: Brazil (celebrated on the same day as in the US), Canada (second Monday in October), Japan (Nov. 23), South Korea (15th day of the eighth lunar month), Liberia (first Thursday in November), and Switzerland (third Sunday in September). Argentina, which was instrumental in pushing forward the International Year of Thanksgiving, also declared a national Thanksgiving Day recently.

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But the tradition is much broader and older than that. In Asia, for example, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Japan have held harvest festivals for centuries. Africa and South America contain long traditions of tribal expressions of gratitude. And in North America, long before the pilgrims arrived, native Americans gave thanks to God.

"Our Creator shall continue to dwell above the sky, and that is where those on the earth will end their thanksgiving," says one Seneca prayer.

Some religions place so much emphasis on daily giving of thanks that the setting aside of a special day seems a little out of place.

"When we open our eyes we thank Him; when we go to bed we thank Him," says Souraya Sawas, a Muslim and real estate agent in Plano, Texas. Nevertheless, she will serve Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow for her family and friends. There will be turkey, of course. But it will be stuffed with rice, ground beef, and nuts.

"My children love the pumpkin pie," she adds, but she's also going to be serving baklava from her Syrian homeland. "I'm teaching my children to take from both the Syrian tradition and the American tradition."

"I can't name a single religion that does not have an element of gratitude in it," adds her friend, Rose Marie Stromberg. Ms. Stromberg will see other ethnic touches at the two holiday get-togethers she's attending: roasted brisket or corned beef along with the turkey, and a dessert called mondel broit (like a biscotti). Her thanksgiving prayers will be in English and Hebrew.

For many immigrants to the US who have fled repressive regimes, Thanksgiving offers a special opportunity for gratitude. With everything else, they're grateful to live in the US. "This is the greatest festival of the year to me because you're thanking everyone," says Mike Ghouse, editor in chief of the Asian American Journal, a nonprofit monthly magazine in Dallas. "You're taking stock about what you should be thankful about."

Every Thanksgiving for the past seven years, he has used the occasion to bring together people of different faiths. On Sunday, his family hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for some 450 immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. They represented nine religions, from Buddhist to Catholic to Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim. Even Indians and Pakistanis sat down together despite the troubled relations between their two homelands.

"Yes, we have differences," says Mr. Ghouse. "Yes, the politicians are dividing us up. [But] it is one occasion where Indians, Pakistanis, and everyone come together."

That's the beginning of a real thanksgiving, says Ms. Espersen. "Thanksgiving opens you up, not only the day itself but the act of being grateful," she says. "You don't think about yourself.... It's 'thank you' to someone else for something they have done."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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