The offering of thanks at harvest time is not unique to Americans. Long before the first Europeans arrived in North America, farmers across Europe held celebrations at harvest time. These celebrations were to give thanks for their good fortune and the abundant harvest of the year. Farm workers and their families would fill a goat’s horn (or cornucopia) with food and grains. The cornucopia or “horn of plenty” tradition was brought to North America by German settlers. Today the cornucopia is still a symbol of Thanksgiving all over North America.
In Germany today, many people celebrate the tradition of “Erntedank”, which is mainly a religious holiday. Erntedank pays tribute to the work accomplished in the fields and gardens in Germany; however, it is mostly a day for fun, good food and thanksgiving for good fortunes of the past year. Church services and parades in celebration of this holiday are usually held the first Sunday of October. However, the timing varies throughout the country as some regions celebrate Erntedank in late November after the grape harvest.
The typical German thanksgiving celebration became known as Erntedankfest and it is different in many ways from the typical North American Thanksgiving. This celebration is primarily a rural and a religious celebration. Germans are very observant of Mother Nature (naturnah) so, while they are very grateful for the economic benefits of a bountiful harvest, Germans never forget that, without the beneficial guiding force of nature, the harvest would not be bountiful and successful.
There are often country fairs and town gatherings filled with food and neighbors. However, in larger cities and less rural areas, Erntedankfest is sponsored by Christian churches. A typical German church observance of Erntedankfest begins with a sermon and a choir singing songs of thanks. Following this comes the thanksgiving procession, complete with the presenting of the traditional “harvest crown” (Erntekrone) to the harvest queen (Erntekönigin). Later in the day there is more music, dancing, and food. In some places, there is an additional evening church service. This is often followed by a lantern and torch parade (Laternenumzug) for the children. Sometimes there are even fireworks at night! While there are plenty of celebrations, the Germanic Erntedankfest is still not a big day of family get-togethers and feasting like it is in America.
What do these very different thanksgiving celebrations have in common? Both the Americans and Germans share the spirit of gratitude for all the good that has happened in their lives. These holidays are poignant reminders of the importance of the agriculture that provides the foods that nourish us every day and the friends and family that nurture our lives.
This Thanksgiving season stop into Bierhaus to enjoy some delicious German food, drink some authentic European beer and spend some time with your friends and family. Make a toast to all things you are thankful for in celebration of Thanksgiving and Erntedankfest!