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Is Thanksgiving Celebrated in Latin America?

Published November 24, 2021 in Historical & Cultural Information - 0 Comments

Here’s a cute little question that sometimes folks who have never been to Latin America will ask either because they have a relative living down here or they are thinking of moving down here.

It’s a question that my mom asked me one time (among other similar questions).

The question being?

“Does Thanksgiving exist in Mexico?”

Given my years living in Mexico, I get why she asked it.

It might seem like a silly question.

Why would it exist in Mexico if it’s a different country with its own history and culture?

However, I get it.

Thanksgiving, while it has its own history behind it that is based in the US, still is celebrated as a day of “giving thanks.”

Do other cultures “give thanks” on a special day regardless of what they call that day?

So I get why one would wonder if something similar to our Thanksgiving would exist down here.

On top of that, it’s normal for anyone to wonder how much of what exists at home also exists abroad despite the differences.

So does Thanksgiving exist in Latin America?

Well, there are various ways of answering this question.

Let’s break it down before getting to the final verdict.

A Translation of the Name?

Before we get to Latin America, it should be known that the term “Thanksgiving” does exist in Spanish as “Dia de Gracias.”

Though I have heard some call it “Dia de Accion de Gracias.”

If I had to guess, the term might’ve been more popularized with more Latinos living in the  US and celebrating the day themselves but translating the meaning of the term “Thanksgiving” into Spanish.

Though I’m not positive on that but I have heard that, for obvious reasons, you have more Latinos in the US celebrating Thanksgiving than what you’ll find in a typical Latin country.

So let’s get to Latin America now regardless of who properly translated the term “Thanksgiving” into Spanish.

An Official Holiday?

The first way to look at this is to ask if any Latin American country has “Thanksgiving” or “Dia de Accion de Gracias” as an official holiday.

The answer is no.

So where is it an official holiday?

Just the US?

According to this source here, that’s not the case.

“Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated on various dates in the United States, Canada, Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Liberia. It began as a day of giving thanks and sacrifice for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year. Similarly named festival holidays occur in Germany and Japan.”

As you can see, Thanksgiving isn’t just a holiday in the US.

It can be exported to other cultures.

Well, in the paragraph above, we’re talking about it being exported more on an official level where it is recognized legally as a holiday in some capacity.

But, as we know, laws and holidays don’t always reflect the culture on the ground.

The behavior of the locals can differ from official laws or holidays that have official recognition.

So does anyone celebrate Thanksgiving in Latin America despite it not being recognized as an official holiday in any country down here?

Let’s break that down by what I could find out online.

American Culture in Latin America

First, let’s discuss the obvious before we get to the locals.

In the same way that you have immigrants and tourists coming to the US for various reasons and bringing with them their own culture, you have the same in Latin America.

You have, for example, certain areas of Latin America that are very expat heavy with plenty of Americans around like San Miguel de Allende in Mexico or Cuenca in Ecuador.

As you can see here, some of the Americans do bring their culture with them by celebrating Thanksgiving.

So if you wish to celebrate Thanksgiving in Latin America, that would be the obvious way to go about it.

Simply visit an area of Latin America with a heavy gringo expat presence, develop friendships over time and celebrate with likeminded people who come from the same culture as you do.

For obvious reasons, a country like Mexico would be more ripe for this than most Latin countries.

Though, as we all know, expat communities are strong in other countries like Costa Rica for example.

And, speaking of Mexico, one might question if American culture has brought Thanksgiving to Mexico in other ways like among Mexicans who left the US to return to Mexico. This source suggests so here:

“Although Thanksgiving is traditionally regarded as an American holiday, this festive occasion is becoming increasingly popular in Mexico. This is partly due to the influence of the roughly 1 million American residents who have emigrated from the U.S. to Mexico. And it’s also inspired by the many native Mexicans who have returned home after spending time in the U.S.”

Beyond that, we should also question if the border area of Mexico would have more locals celebrating Thanksgiving due to its cultural exchange with the bordering US cities.

Because while all of Mexico has Mexicans who have lived in the US and brought American culture back to their native country, the border area obviously has more folks with cultural ties between both the US and Mexico.

Those carrying mentioned ties not just being gringos then but also plenty of Mexicans.

Here’s two people in these comments here mentioning this possibility.

“Generally, no. But you could say that border cities could be an exception to this rule, I’m from Tijuana and here many families celebrate it (some people even call it día del pavo), most of them are either mexican-american or have strong ties to the US. I think they usually celebrate it the same way americans do: by having a big dinner with their loved ones, or either crossing over to the US to meet their families and have their meeting over there.  In my case, I have a few relatives that live in the US, and i know they DO celebrate it every year, but my family does not, since thanksgiving does not hold any special meaning for us of any kind, so there is no reason to celebrate it.”

“Mexico do not celebrate it, we know about it because of american media, but we do not participate, what we do, is that some bussiness like HEB and Walmart in Mexico sell turkey dinner, some people in the city of Nuevo Laredo start calling it, Dia del Pavo, or “Turkey Day” just because the tradition is to dine turky, my family do not follow this tradition, instead we cross to to the US to buy a turkey for Christmas, which is actually celebrate in Mexico”

So now we know where we could find some folks in Mexico maybe celebrating Thanksgiving.

In areas with a strong American expat community, border areas with the US or in Mexican families in Mexico that have American influence somehow (an American parent, a Mexican who spent years in the US and left, etc).

And, according to this source here, there’s certain ways that some Mexicans celebrate Thanksgiving.

“Before the meal begins, it’s common for each guest to deliver a short prayer of gratitude.”

“While many families do eat the traditional Thanksgiving turkey, others will instead opt for a traditional dish like marinated roast pork. If there is turkey on the table, you may find that it is prepared in a green mole or with spicy chipotle peppers. Turkey enchiladas are also popular in some regions.

Other foods commonly found at a Mexican Thanksgiving feast include chorizo pumpkin soup and candied pumpkin. Instead of cranberry sauce, you may find cranberry salsa with cilantro and chiles. Cranberries are sometimes hard to locate, though, so the local kumquat may be substituted.”

For those curious, here’s some videos of a Mexican Thanksgiving.

But what about the rest of Latin America?

We focused more heavily on Mexico in this section with a causal mention of other countries but we should look into other Latin countries more deeply also.

Thanksgiving in the Rest of Latin America?

From what I can tell based on my brief research, it doesn’t seem Thanksgiving is as common in the rest of Latin America when compared to Mexico.

Granted, I think you could easily say that it’s not THAT popular in Mexico either outside of the specific scenarios painted above.

Given the lack of a border and smaller number of American expats and locals leaving the US back to their respective Latin countries elsewhere, I guess it’s easy to see why it would be less common in the rest of Latin America.

Still, there’s enough evidence out there that the following statements seem to be true various Latin countries:

  • Places like Costa Rica with more American expats are more likely to see celebrations of Thanksgiving.
  • That, while Thanksgiving isn’t officially recognized anywhere as a legal holiday, you have various examples of celebrations happening in Latin America that have a similar but different theme to Thanksgiving in the US.

We’ll be bringing up just a few countries to illustrate the points above.

First, we have this source here on “Thanksgiving in Peru.”

The summary of the article is that it claims that, while the holiday Thanksgiving doesn’t exist in Peru, the spirit of it does historically in which cultures have had their own “dia de gracias” in various examples.

What examples did it bring up?

Here’s a few of them.

“In his 1847 classic A History of the Conquest of Peru, William H. Prescott describes how the Inca ruler would enter the Temple of the Sun in Cusco “stripped of his royal insignia, barefooted and with all humility” to offer “thanksgiving to the glorious Deity who presided over the fortunes of the Incas.”

“This ceremony concluded,” Prescott wrote, “the whole population gave itself up to festivity, music, revelry and dancing were heard in every quarter of the capital.”

Spanish Chronicler Pedro Cieza de León in his 16th century Crónicas del Perú described Cusco’s indigenous population in 1550 celebrating a “thanksgiving” harvest, and reminiscing the loss of their Inti Raymi solstice festival following the Spanish Conquest.

In 1922, he published Inca Land Explorations in the Highlands of Peru. In it, Bingham recalled crossing Lake Titicaca into Bolivia and witnessing a festival venerating the Virgen de la Candelaria — although he says it occurred in August, and it’s celebrated every February.

“On the peninsula of Copacabana, opposite the sacred islands, a great annual ant is still staged every August. Although at present connected with the pious pilgrimage to the shrine of the miraculous image of the ‘Virgin of Copacabana,’ this vivid spectacle, the most celebrated fair in all South America, has its origin in the dim past. It comes after the maize is harvested and corresponds to our Thanksgiving festival.”

Second, we have Costa Rica with this source here.

“Thanksgiving is one of the most celebrated American holidays in Costa Rica; every year, thousands of expats gather to give thanks and dine on foods that commemorate the autumn harvest. ... All your favorite Thanksgiving foods are available at local supermarkets.”

Then we have this source of the Tico Times here that I had to pull from the WayBackMachine.

“These days when people pack for a holiday in Costa Rica, they’re not likely to shove a frozen turkey in between the surfboard and camera. But 15 years ago, people coming from the United States in November or December may very well have had frozen turkeys hidden in their suitcases, evading the customs authorities who could make or break a traditional Thanksgiving meal. 

Nearly every U.S. native who has lived here more than a couple decades has at least one story about a Butterball smuggling gone awry: missed or delayed flights resulting in the bird’s arrival outside of its best condition, or turkeys forgotten overnight in bags and not unpacked until the mess had already been made.

But while people back then had difficulties getting certain ingredients, the article explains how it has gotten much easier for Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving with the right ingredients in Costa Rica and the tradition has become much more popularized with so many more Americans living in Costa Rica these days than in the past."

It then has this interesting bit here:

“We try to maintain the tradition…when my children were little, it was a way to remind them a little bit of American customs.We didn’t get back there too often when they were growing up, so it was a really nice way to remind them, and of course a nice holiday to say thank you for everything,” Barbee said.

That’s interesting to me.

As more people work remotely and live abroad, I wonder if we’ll see more Americans bringing this holiday with them?

Perhaps raising family here also?

And wanting to keep parts of their culture in the family.

Anyway, let’s move beyond the tourists and look at Brazil next.

We have this source here where a few Brazilians celebrate a “Dia de Ação de Graças.”

Here’s a video supposedly of such an occasion.

What’s the story about it?

Well, let’s cite that last source to get an idea:

“Legend has it that when the Brazilian ambassador to the US returned from a November trip in the 1940s, he told then-President Gaspar Dutra about this amazing holiday where Americans ate a ton of food. And then he was like, “We should do this! But let's add a giant street party! Because we’re Brazil.” (Naturally, we're paraphrasing.)

So that’s exactly what they did, and now Brazil celebrates Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. Only difference: no Cowboys game! Also, it begins with a church service to give thanks for the fall harvest and ends with a sort of autumn Carnival. Other than that, the meal is almost identical. Well, except they replace cranberry sauce with jabuticaba sauce, and they call turkey “Peru.”

Finally, let’s bring up an easy example of where you can find Thanksgiving in Latin America.

Puerto Rico!

Should’ve been a bit obvious, no?

As you can see here, Puerto Rico adopted the holiday of Thanksgiving after becoming a US Territory.

“Thanksgiving is relatively new in Puerto Rico—the islanders adopted it when they became a U.S. Territory in the late 1800s. Locals really embrace it, however. Just like on the U.S. mainland, shops close, families come together, ridiculous amounts of food get prepared and eaten and families and friends wake up the next day to fight for Black Friday deals.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, called Día de Acción de Gracias in PR, residents stroll along the beaches soaking up sun and go shopping. The weather is perfect here in November—temperatures range from the mid-70s to mid-80s. And believe it or not, Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico is also the unofficial kick-off for Christmas Season! You’ll see festive lights go up as early as late November on the island. The capital of San Juan literally turns into a Christmas town overnight!”

For more interesting information on how Puerto Rico celebrates Thanksgiving, check out that last article cited as it goes into a lot more detail.

Honorary Mention: Black Friday

Plenty of Americans joke about how we celebrate Black Friday right after Thanksgiving.

Speaking of American culture being exported to Latin America, Black Friday has its place down here.

I’m not going to go into too much detail because I might write a separate article on this elaborating more someday.

But it is relevant to Thanksgiving since it is part of the conversation that Americans have when discussing all of this.

Here’s some videos anyhow of folks celebrating “Black Friday” in Latin America.

Anyway, let’s wrap this up.

Final Thoughts

So is Thanksgiving celebrated in Latin America?

Not officially it seems (except maybe Puerto Rico but I’m not sure) but it does have its place in Latin America.

Be it among gringos, Latin Americans with connections to the US, similar holidays that resemble Thanksgiving slightly or actual examples of it being exported down here like in the case of Puerto Rico or Brazil.

Have I ever celebrated Thanksgiving though in Latin America?

Only once.

A few years ago, I remember celebrating it with an Mexican ex-girlfriend named Brenda.

It was my idea.

We didn’t have a turkey but we had plenty of food and some wine!

Suffice to say – if I ever have a family down here, I’d likely introduce it to the family.

Be like those other Americans celebrating it down here.

Anyway, that’s all I got to say.

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Thanks for reading.

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