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Thai Pongal is a harvest festival that is observed by the Tamils, a people who trace their origins to India, but whose population is now widely spread throughout the world. In particular you will find large populations of Tamils in Southern India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, and more recently many immigrants now reside in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and North America. This is a huge population group, with over 70 million people of Tamil origin in the world today. Thai Pongal may be alternately called the Festival of the Tamils.
The celebration has much in common with Thanksgiving, though the typical date for celebration is January 12-15, which corresponds with the beginning of the month of Thai. Also, unlike North American Thanksgiving, the celebration of Thai Pongal can last several days. On the main day, families awake and dress in new clothing, usually having destroyed old clothes, the day before. It is a time for families to be together, to visit with each other in the evening hours and to relax, shop, or even attend cultural events.
The main meal is actually a breakfast meal, similar to rice pudding and called pongal. It is a combination of rice boiled in milk, and jaggery. The cooking of the meal may be conducted by the oldest person in the house, and sometimes is conducted outdoors. Pongal derives from the word pongu, which means, “to cook,” but the day is not only about he cooking of this special meal.
In various parts of the world, and most particularly India, special reverence is paid to cattle on this day, and they may be painted and decorated for the holiday. Tamils also use the day to pay reverence to various gods or goddesses of the harvest. The specific god that may be thanked for a bountiful harvest is sometimes a sun God, since part of the holiday references and corresponds to the winter solstice and the birth of spring, which would more accurately take place a month earlier.
The month of Thai is always associated with rebirth, and some say that it is a month where anything may happen. It looks forward to a future and on Thai Pongal, people look forward to a joyous year, and are thankful for any fortune and abundance they have experienced during the harvest. Weddings and various celebrations often take place during Thai, since the month has such a celebratory tone. In particular, Thai Pongal is also a time to forgive arguments and renew friendships, to celebrate peace, and to enjoy family. As with Christmas, many people send greeting cards to others to wish them joy during the holiday.
The celebration of Thai Pongal can be split into several days. The first is a time when old things, like old clothes are discarded. The second day families have new clothes and cook the special rice dish. On the third day of Thai Pongal, sometimes called Maattup Pongal, cattle are reverenced, especially since it is by their work that many people produce harvests. A fourth day may be called Kaanum Pongal, and is a day for the blessing of unmarried women (virgins) by elders.