In agrarian cultures, harvest time is a big deal. The fields are bursting with ripe produce, and pantries swell with food. It's time to eat — and also time to relax with loved ones after a busy growing season.
In modern times, harvest festivals may seem anachronistic celebrations, especially when worldwide trade makes a full larder possible year-round. Still, tradition holds strong. In the United States, warm cider is passed around on hayrides, and pumpkin infiltrates nearly everything.
Pumpkin, in fact, is celebrated in many places around the world as a symbol of harvest.
China's Mid-Autumn, or Harvest Moon, Festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. This year, according to the Gregorian calendar, that was Sept. 19.
Why such specific timing? That's because the Chinese believed the moon was brightest and fullest at that point in its cycle.
As in other cultures, pumpkins are a symbol of the harvest in China. Most legends say that the pumpkin brings abundance and has near-mythical restorative qualities. That's one tradition that's based in fact: Pumpkins are packed with vitamins and minerals which help boost immunity, reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and are even said to have anti-aging qualities.
Though certainly nowhere near as healthy as pumpkins, one treat is coveted much more than the famous orange gourd.
Mooncakes (get the recipe) are round pastries stuffed with often-sweet pastes of everything from lotus seeds to adzuki beans (though some come stuffed with salted egg yolk).
They're typically given to family and friends with such fervor that traffic snarls in China around the holiday.
In India, Pongol, which literally means "boil" — a spilling over — is the celebration of the season of abundance. Pumpkin is part of the festivities here too, and people eat plenty of pumpkin curry and decorate fields with pumpkin flours.
Pongol is part of a larger celebration called Makar Sankranti, which falls on Jan.14. It's both a harvest festival and a New Year's celebration for Hindus.
Meherwan Irani is the owner of Chai Pani, an Indian street food-style restaurant with locations in Decatur, Ga. and Asheville, N.C. Irani has family in Dehera Dun, the capital city of Uttarakhand. Sitting with his aunt Meena on the family farm, Irani discussed traditions his family takes part in during Makar Sankrati.
“It's one of the rare Hindu festivals that's almost always on the same day,” he says. “While Diwali is considered New Years for businesses, Sankranti is the new year for families.”
According to Irani, his family would typically kick off Sankranti by offering chawal (rice) and urad daal to the poor and holy men who would stop by the house.
They'd also make sweet sesame dumplings, or till laddos. At home, they ate khichdi sakrant, a dish of rice and lentils eaten with ghee and till, or sesame chutney (get the recipe).
The Japanese love their pumpkin. So much so that Japanese Burger King restaurants offer pumpkin burgers.
Japanese pumpkins, also known as kabocha, don't resemble the big, orange gourds many are accustomed to. Smaller and green-skinned, the flesh of kobocha has a firm flavor and is often tempura-battered and fried in Japan. And, not surprisingly, it finds its way into Japanese harvest traditions.
According to Risa Sekiguchi, whose blog Savory Japan helps tie the Chicago-dwelling writer to her homeland of Japan, her culture boasts a bounty of harvest holidays.
"There are many festivals in Japan that surround the harvests, and one of them is the harvest moon festival," she says. Also known as O-tsukimi, the harvest moon festival was introduced to Japan from China in the 6th century.
"Court nobles celebrated O-tsukimi by indulging in banquets, music and composing poems dedicated to the moon," Sekiguchi writes of the holiday.
Chestnuts and dango (rice flour dumplings — get the recipe), are offered to the moon as an expression of gratitude for the harvest.
Temples and houses are decorated with seasonal flowers and grasses, like pampas. Pumpkins also make the rounds as decor, and they also turn up in soups and Japanese curries.
In Israel, there's Sukkot, which marks the Autumn harvest. It's also the culmination of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah has its own pumpkin lore. According to My Jewish Learning, before eating pumpkin on Rosh Hashanah, some families say "yikarul' fanekhaz' khuyoteinu", which means, "May our good deeds call out our merit before you. "
In celebration of Sukkot, observant Jews build temporary structures called sukkah, which by some accounts are meant to represent farmers' dwellings during the final — and busiest — parts of the harvest season.
According to tradition, the sukkah should be large enough to accommodate small gatherings around a dinner table. (Here's more about how to build a sukkah.)
One-pot meals like the stuffed pumpkin dish provided here are prevalent during Sukkot, mostly because they retain heat well and are easily transported to the temporary huts.
Gathering around a table and eating pumpkin? No wonder some think sukkot inspired the United States' own biggest harvest festival: Thanksgiving.