“I always wondered why your Thanksgiving is later than ours”, I asked Francesca. “Does your harvest season end that late?”
She laughed, ”American Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the harvest. It is all about the Pilgrim Fathers and eating turkey.”
In Germany, Thanksgiving is about going to church. Every first Sunday in October we celebrate “Erntedankfest” or “Thank you for the harvest” in English. If you are in Germany and missed out on Christmas and Easter, Erntedankfest is another chance to attend a special mass. All over the country, fruits, vegetables and grain decorate the altar. Most likely you will hear a choir singing “Großer Gott wir loben Dich”. If you smell incense, you are in a catholic church.
When I grew up in the countryside in the 60ies and 70ies, I understood the meaning of this celebration very well. In our little mountain village, self-sustainability was not a fashion but a necessity. Everybody had a cow or two for milk and cream, two pigs for sausages and meat, hens for eggs, a big garden for vegetables, baskets for picking wild raspberries, blueberries and mushrooms and a huge cool cellar to stock potatoes and carrots, with shelves full of preserves. To celebrate–and to show off–on Erntedankfest we would bring wicker baskets full of home grown stuff to church and place them in front of the altar.
You might know the German saying, “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen” – “work first, celebrate later”. There was a lot of work to be done till we could sit down in church and rejoice. Though, for me as a child, the work was fun.
I was lucky to grow up in a place where “Füchse und Hasen sich gute Nacht sagen” – “where fox and hare meet to say goodnight”. In this narrow mountain village, agricultural mechanization meant a tractor and nothing more. Therefore, during harvest season, every hand counted, even small ones.
When we children followed the hand-pushed mower at sunrise, picked up the grass with wooden forks and threw it in the air to spread it evenly for the sun to dry, we knew we were important. When we raked the grass again into swathes at night, we knew we protected the sweet smelling hay from the morning dew. When we rushed out to form haystacks when a thunderstorm built up over the hills, we knew that we saved the winter´s forage for the farm animals. And when we rode the hay home on a swaying cart, we knew that in winter we would sneak away from our mothers to jump from the wooden beams of the barn into the soft hay—and would be punished by our fathers for ignoring their ban of the barn.
In later years, my memories of these summers faded from golden and green to pale sepia. I got hay fever, went to live in the city and never came near a haystack for thirty years. Then, this June, I decided that I needed a dose of green, to balance the grey I see each time I look out of the window.
“Can I come and visit you?”, I emailed my friends Barbara and Albert, recently turned into hobby farmers. When they invited me, I filled my bags with books I wanted to read on their terrace, surrounded by the healthy air of the Black Forest.
When I arrived, they hugged and kissed me, showed me the terrace, and said: “I hope you don´t mind that you won´t see us till late at night. We have to rake the hay.”
“To rake the hay? This is 2008. Nobody rakes the hay anymore.”
“We do. The slopes are too steep.”
“Ok, I´ll help you today and then we are through with it.”
“Hm, we will have to rake it into swathes in the evening and then spread it again early in the morning at least three times, our neighbour says.”
“Three times” I cried . “What a waste of time. There must be another way of doing this. Let me check the internet.”
Half an hour later, I had found it. “Look, how they do it in New Zealand. They just cut the grass, spread it and then leave it for a few days to dry. That’s the way to do it.”
So we tried it this way and enjoyed an evening of friendship and good wine on their terrace.
The next morning, the grass that had already been 90 percent dry in the evening, was green and wet again.
Humbled, I left the terrace and started to shake and rake, hour after hour. The sun burnt my face, my arms ached, my nose itched. Late in the afternoon, with half of the work still do be done, I started to develop a business plan: hay making instead of boot camps to form a team. Wouldn´t stressed out corporate managers pay good money for this old-time experience? We could call it: “Zen and raking the hay with one fork” or “The ultimate battle: How to survive a day at work without a computer”.
I survived. Two months later, on Erntedank, I decided to give my son the chance to learn where milk comes from. So we went to see Barbara and Albert again. He came back a different boy.
But that is another story.