Food for Thought: How Other Countries Celebrate Thanksgiving
Believe it or not, a holiday for showing gratitude is not uniquely American.
Thanksgiving is the epitome of a traditional American holiday. Regardless of your heritage, if you live in the U.S., you probably celebrate Thanksgiving in some way. Every year, on the third Thursday of November, we gather with our loved ones to give thanks for what we have… and to stuff our faces.
You’re likely familiar with the legend of the Pilgrim’s first harvest feast with their Native American neighbors. What you may find surprising is this: although Thanksgiving and America go together like turkey and stuffing, similar celebrations occur around the world. Here are some of our favorites:
Germany, Austria, Switzerland
The holiday celebrated every Fall in German-speaking countries is not exactly Thanksgiving, but the idea is similar. Erntedankfest, or “harvest festival of thanks," takes place in early October to celebrate a good year and good fortune. The primarily rural celebration is held at churches across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Erntedankfest is often an all-day affair, beginning with a procession and the presentation of the Erntekrone (“harvest crown") in the morning, and followed by musical performances, dancing, food, and an evening service. It typically culminates in a lantern parade and fireworks.
Let’s talk turkey. In Germany, as in America, the Thanksgiving meal is all about birds. Traditionally, Erntedankfest features these feathered centerpieces: die Masthühnchen (broiler chickens), die Poularde (hens), die Gans (geese), and last but not least, der Kapaun (castrated roosters). But over the past few decades, the turkey trend has made Truthahn (turkey) quite popular.
In order to understand why one city in the Netherlands celebrates Thanksgiving, you need a quick history lesson. It centers around those famous Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth. Before heading to the New World, many of these Pilgrims spent just over a decade in a small city in Holland (now in the Netherlands) called Leiden. They started as a group of religious separatists in England who were not happy with the Church of England’s new direction. King James was kind of a jerk, and punished some of them with fines, imprisonment, and even execution for rebelling. So they fled. After a brief stop in Amsterdam, they arrived in Leiden, where they were free to worship how they wanted, but economic instability and a liberal culture led them to sail to America in 1620.
Holland didn’t end up being the ideal new home for the Pilgrims, but Leiden provided a temporary safe haven that was much appreciated. And apparently, the Dutch thought pretty highly of the Pilgrims, too. Every year on American Thanksgiving Day, Leiden commemorates the religious refugees who lived and worked there centuries before. Residents of the city gather for a non-denominational service in honor of the Pilgrims’ perseverance. There’s no coma-inducing feast, but cookies and coffee are served.
Fun fact: Nine U.S. presidents, including President Obama, are descendants of the Leiden Pilgrims, according to Leiden University. That’s history worth celebrating.
Canadian Thanksgiving (or action de grâce in French Canada) is very similar to the American holiday, except for the date. In 1957, the Governor General of Canada issued the proclamation of “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed — to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October." Pretty legit.
Otherwise, Canadian and American Thanksgiving share a set of cherished ideals: skipping work for a long weekend, spending time with family, watching football (Canadian football is closely related to American football; it’s definitely not soccer), and feasting until you’re stuffed.
Obviously the Plymouth Pilgrims didn’t land in Canada. So how did the holiday originate?
Canadian Thanksgiving stems from a combination of events dating back to 1578 when explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew held a feast to express gratitude for their safe return from an arctic journey. Not long after, French settlers arrived and held feasts with their indigenous neighbors. Finally, a number of Loyalists moved to Canada during the American Revolution, bringing their Thanksgiving traditions with them, including turkey and pumpkin (You’re welcome, Canada).
Whether you’re donning a crown during Erntedankfest, celebrating history by gobbling cookies in the Netherlands, or watching some good old Canadian football, there are many different ways we can give thanks. And not just here at home.