Thanksgiving in Germany

A religous and non-religous celebrated tradition

Family Dinner
The Traditional ThanksGiving Dinner with Turkey. CSA Images/Snapstock@gettyimages.de

Various cultures and nationalities celebrate a successful harvest every fall and the festivities usually involve both religious and non-religious elements. On the one hand, people offer prayerful thanks for a fruitful growing season, for enough food to survive the winter, for their community’s health and well-being, and then add their sincere desire to renew their good fortune in the coming spring.

On the other hand, people also delight in having crops of fruits, grains, and vegetables to trade for non-agricultural goods that make their lives more bearable. People worldwide, especially those involved in agriculture, share these common elements after the growing season.

In Germany, Thanksgiving—(“das Erntedankfest,” i.e.,Thanksgiving Harvest Festival)—is strongly entrenched in German culture. Erntedankfest is usually observed on the first Sunday of October (04 October 2015 this year), although the timing is not hard and fast nationwide. For example, in many of the wine regions (there are a lot of them in Germany), vintners are more likely to celebrate Erntedankfest in late November after the grape harvest. Regardless of the timing, Erntedankfest is usually more religious than non-religious. At their core and despite their renowned scientific, engineering, and technological wizardry, Germans are very, very close to Mother Nature (“naturnah”), so, while the economic benefits of a bountiful harvest are always well received, Germans never forget that, without the beneficial guiding force of nature, the harvest would not have gone as well.

And, as Blaise Pascal observed, a prayer never hurts.

As one would expect, Erntedankfest, whenever it takes place, includes the usual community events of preachers’ homilies reminding listeners that, whatever their successes, they didn’t achieve it on their own, of colorful parades meandering through the city center, of the selection and crowning of a local beauty as harvest queen, and, of course, of lots of food, music, drink, dancing, and generally enthusiastic revelry.

In some of the larger towns, fireworks displays are not uncommon. 

Since Erntedankfest stems from both rural and religious roots, some other traditions should interest you. Churchgoers load freshly harvested crops such as fruits, vegetables, and their byproducts, e.g., bread, cheese, etc., as well as canned goods, into sturdy baskets, much like picnic baskets, and take them to their church in mid-morning. Following the Erntedankfest service, the preacher blesses the food and the parishioners Mohnstriezel distribute it to the poor. Local craftsmen and craftswomen make large, colorful wreaths from wheat or maize to display on one’s door, and they also fashion crowns of various sizes to mount on buildings and to carry in their parades. In many towns and villages, children equipped with lanterns go from house to house in the evening (“der Laternenumzug”).

After the public events, individual families gather at home to enjoy a celebratory meal, often one that has been influenced by American and Canadian traditions. Who hasn’t seen treacly American films of extended families traveling great distances to be together on Thanksgiving? Fortunately, this sentimental aspect of Thanksgiving hasn’t yet polluted German Erntedankfest.

The most prominent North American influence and, to many people, particularly those who favor the turkey’s abundance of white meat, the most welcome influence is the growing preference for a roasted turkey (“der Truthahn”), rather than a roasted goose (“die Gans”).

Turkeys are much leaner, and, consequently, somewhat drier, while a well roasted goose is certainly more savory. If the family cook knows what s/he’s doing, a good six-kilo goose is probably the tastier choice; however, geese have a lot of fat. That fat should be drained, saved, and used to pan-fry sliced potatoes a few days later, so be prepared.

Some families have their own traditions and serve duck, rabbit, or roast (pork or beef) as the main course. I’ve even enjoyed a truly magnificent carp (a scale from which I still have in my wallet as protection against poverty).

Many such meals feature the superb Mohnstriezel, a sweet braided bun originating in Austria, containing poppy seeds, almonds, lemon rind, raisins, etc. Regardless of the main dish, the side dishes, which are invariably regional, are always incredibly tasty and unique. The main thing to remember about Erntedankfest is that the food and the drink are merely the background. The Erntedankfest’s real stars are “die Gemütlichkeit, die Kameradschaft, und die Agape” (the cosiness, the camaraderie, and the agape [the love of God for man and of man for God]).