Fall brings with it the turning of the leaves, the smell of fireplaces warming the crisp air, the excitement of football season, and the annual feast of Thanksgiving Day. Turkeys will be the centerpieces of most dinner tables, and side dishes, such as green bean casseroles, candied yams, and cranberries, will release their savory aroma into the air. On this fourth Thursday of November, Americans commemorate the early settlers’ thanksgiving to God for their land, harvest, continued survival and family togetherness, by feasting. Every year it seems the history and meaning of this country’s first Thanksgiving gets pushed further from memory.
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, and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s service of Thanksgiving in the Texas Panhandle in 1541 along with others. 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. 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 1940’s. 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. Today, our Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham Lincoln’s designation as the last Thursday in November (which could occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses).
Long before the first Europeans arrived in North America, farmers across Europe held celebrations at harvest time. To give thanks for their good fortune and the abundant harvest from fields and gardens, the farm workers filled a curved goat’s horn with fruit and grain. This symbol was called a cornucopia or horn of plenty. When they came to North America they brought this tradition with them.
Germans, too, celebrate a day of Thanksgiving to God for a plentiful harvest. On the first Sunday of October (in most locations), visitors to German churches will find an abundance of fruits, vegetables, sheaves of grain, and also baked goods, as decorations around the altars. Visitors to market places and fairgrounds will oftentimes find Erntedankfest (literally: harvest gratitude festival) dances, displays, booths, and other festivities to celebrate this occasion. In the regions where wine grapes are grown, Winzer (vintners) will present their new wines and allow for a public wine-tasting. A Bauernmarkt (farmers’ market) will allow visitors to purchase the freshest produce available. What sets the German celebration apart from its American cousin however, are the strong religious undertones of this event. 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 observes an official national Thanksgiving holiday on a particular day as in the U.S.
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.). This day is referred to as “Michaelmas” in many countries and is also one of the harvest feast days. This day also marks the opening of the deer and other large game hunting season. In some parts of Europe, especially Germany, Denmark, and Austria, a special wine called “Saint Michael’s Love” (Michelsminne) is drunk on this day. The name of the archangel Michael means, in Hebrew, who is like unto God? and he is also known as “the prince of the heavenly host.” He is usually pictured as a strong warrior, dressed in armor and wearing sandals.
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 the more traditional goose (Gans) on special occasions. (And like the goose, it can be stuffed and prepared in similar fashion.) 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 sterlilized pullet that is also fattened up (gemästet). But this is not something done just for Erntedankfest. But the Germanic Erntedankfest is still not a big day of family get-togethers and feasting like it is in America.
What the North American tradition of Thanksgiving and the German celebration of Erntedank have in common, is the spirit of gratitude remembering our loved ones and appreciating our life’s bounty. These holidays are quintessential reminders of the importance of agriculture, which provides the foods and beverages that nourish us day in and day out.