Erntedankfest: Thanksgiving in Germany

Pumpkin

The first thing you learn when you begin researching Thanksgiving traditions - in the Americas, in Germany, or elsewhere- is that most of what we "know" about the holiday is bunk.

For starters, where was the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America? Most people assume it was the well-known 1621 harvest celebration (Erntedankfest) of the Pilgrims in New England. But beyond the many myths associated with that event, there are other claims to the first American Thanksgiving celebration.

These include Juan Ponce De Leon's landing in Florida in 1513, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's service of thanksgiving in the Texas Panhandle in 1541, as well as two claims for Thanksgiving observances in Jamestown, Virginia — in 1607 and 1610. Canadians claim that Martin Frobisher's 1576 Thanksgiving on Baffin Island was the first. Of course, Native Americans (Indianer), very much involved in the New England events, have their own perspective on all of this.

Thanksgiving Outside the United States

But the offering of thanks at harvest time is not unique to America. Such observances are known to have been held by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and many other cultures throughout history. The American celebration itself is a historically recent development, in fact, connected only tenuously to any of the so-called "first" thanksgivings. The American Thanksgiving of 1621 was all but forgotten until the 19th century.

The 1621 event was not repeated, and what many consider the first authentic Calvinist, religious Thanksgiving did not take place until 1623 in Plymouth Colony. Even then it was celebrated only occasionally in some regions for decades and has only been a U.S. national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November since the 1940s.

President Lincoln declared a national Day of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1863. But it was a one-time event, and future Thanksgiving observances were based on the whims of various presidents until President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill creating the current holiday in 1941.

Canadians began their second-Monday-in-October Thanksgiving observance in 1957, although the official holiday actually goes back to 1879, making it a much older national observance than the U.S. holiday. Canada's Dankfest has been celebrated annually on November 6th until it was moved to Monday, giving Canadians a long weekend. Canadians (Kanadier) adamantly deny any connection between their Thanksgiving and the American Pilgrim tradition. They prefer to claim the English explorer Martin Frobisher and his 1576 Thanksgiving on what is now Baffin Island – which they assert was the "real" first Thanksgiving in North America, beating the Pilgrims by 45 years (but not the Florida or Texas claims).

Thanksgiving in German Europe has a long tradition, but one that is different in many ways from that in North America. First of all, the Germanic Erntedankfest ("harvest festival of thanks") is primarily a rural and a religious celebration.

When it is celebrated in larger cities, it is usually part of a church service and not anything like the big traditional family holiday in North America. Although it is celebrated locally and regionally, none of the German-speaking countries observe an official national Thanksgiving holiday on a particular day, as in Canada or the U.S.

Thanksgiving in German Europe

In German-speaking countries, Erntedankfest is often celebrated on the first Sunday in October, which is usually also the first Sunday following Michaelistag or Michaelmas (29 Sept.), but various locales may give thanks at different times during September and October. This puts the Germanic Thanksgiving closer to Canada's Thanksgiving holiday in early October.

A typical Erntedankfest celebration at Berlin's Evangelisches Johannesstift Berlin (the Protestant/evangelische Johannesstift Church) is an all-day affair held in late September.

A typical Fest begins with a service at 10:00 am. A Thanksgiving procession is held at 2:00 pm and concludes with the presenting of the traditional "harvest crown" (Erntekrone). At 3:00 pm there's music ("von Blasmusik bis Jazz"), dancing, and food inside and outside the church. A 6:00 pm evening service is followed by a lantern and torch parade (Laternenumzug) for the kids — with fireworks! The ceremonies end around 7:00 pm. The church's Web site has photos and video of the latest celebration.

Some aspects of the New World's Thanksgiving celebration have caught on in Europe. Over the past few decades, Truthahn (turkey) has become a popular dish, widely available in German-speaking countries. The New World bird is valued for its tender, juicy meat, slowly usurping a more traditional goose (Gans) on special occasions. (And like the goose, it can be stuffed and prepared in similar fashion.) But the Germanic Erntedankfest is still not a big day of family get-togethers and feasting like it is in America.

There are some turkey substitutes, usually so-called Masthühnchen, or chickens bred to be fattened up for more meat. Der Kapaun is a castrated rooster that is fed until he's heavier than the average rooster and ready for a feast. Die Poularde is the hen equivalent, a sterilized pullet that is also fattened up (gemästet). But this is not something done just for Erntedankfest.

While Thanksgiving in the U.S. is the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season, in Germany the unofficial starting date is Martinstag on November 11. (It used to be more significant as the start of 40 days of fasting before Christmas.) But things really don't get started for Weihnachten until the first Adventsonntag (Advent Sunday) around December 1. (For more about German Christmas customs, see our article entitled A German Christmas.)