Why One Australian Island Celebrates Thanksgiving

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Norfolk Island is tiny, both in size and population. An Australian territory hundreds of miles from the mainland, it's home to fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. It has sparkling blue waters, unique flora (the famed Norfolk pine is displayed on their flag), and a stranger-than-fiction origin story: The island was populated by the descendants of mutineers from the British ship HMS Bounty. The British mutineers and several captive Tahitians had fled to nearby Pitcairn Island in 1790, and by 1856, their descendants moved to the larger Norfolk Island.

The islanders have long history of cultural melange, with many speaking a combination of Tahitian and 18th-century English, called Norfuk. They also celebrate unique holidays, such as Bounty Day, and, strangely enough, an American-inspired Thanksgiving.

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While various harvest festivals and days of thanks fill fall calendars around the world, Norfolk Island's Thanksgiving is actually based on the American tradition. Norfolk Island has always been a stop for seafarers, from the island's first Polynesian inhabitants to 19th-century American whalers. In 1887, one Norfolk Island resident, Isaac Robinson, even became the American consul, making him a diplomatic representative of the United States. One year, the story goes, Robinson wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving. He observed the holiday by decorating the pews of the All Saints Church with palm leaves and lemons. When Robinson died at sea, the islanders kept up the practice, which was shored up by American sailors in later decades.

These days, the tradition continues much in the same vein, although Norfolk Island celebrates on the last Wednesday of the month rather than on a Thursday. The island's churches hold Thanksgiving services (the day is a public holiday). At All Saints Church, the pews are decorated with tall stalks of corn. Norfolk and church attendees place fresh fruit and vegetables along the aisles, a testament to the local practice of almost complete agricultural self-sufficiency. Despite the harvest symbolism, though, November is springtime on Norfolk Island.

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After the service, all the bounty is loaded onto tables and sold as a church fundraiser. Then, it's time for feasting, whether with family or the community. The TASTE Norfolk Island Food Festival takes place annually during the week of Thanksgiving, and includes the holiday's unique feast on the program.

The Thanksgiving meal is a fusion of traditional Thanksgiving foods and Norfolk Island cuisine. Turkey is generally not on the menu, but cornbread is. There's pumpkin pie, but also multiple banana dishes. As Tom Lloyd, one Norfolk Islander, told NPR, there's banana pilaf, "green bananas cooked in cream, and dried bananas." Past celebrations have included a TASTE Norfolk Island banquet of "roast meats, traditional Tahitian fish salad, corn, coconut bread, and salads." This year, festival guests will attend Thanksgiving Day church services before going to a local home for a feast.