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Erntedankfest: Thanksgiving in Germany

The Many Different Thanksgivings


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.

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 an 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 was celebrated annually on November 6th until it was moved to Monday, giving Canadians a long weekend. Canadians (Kanadier) adamently 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 observes an official national Thanksgiving holiday on a particular day, as in Canada or the U.S.

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