Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving – Typical American or Maybe Not

I remember how we celebrated our Thanksgiving. Turkey baking smells wafted through the house for hours. Breading that melted on our tongues, yams and cornbread were served and we stuffed ourselves so silly that we barely were able to get up from our chairs and crawl to the sofa where we waited for the first signs of peckishness. This was the perfect moment for pulling out the pecan pies and for my mother to start the coffee. So far so very typical.


Except that the talented cook was my Italian mother and I lived in Germany, with my American father and my three sisters. It was the seventies and we gave our German Neighbors many opportunities to shake their heads and wag their tongues in wonderment at our strange habits. We spoke English amongst ourselves, German as fluently as natives, attended local schools, but preferred to shop in a bi-monthly shopping spree at the PX, which was only accessible to special ID Holders and read the Sunday Comics.


For at least the duration of a week after Thanksgiving, my school friends would regard my school sandwiches with envy, as the leftovers found their way into my school supplies. In those days you could only find Turkey in inaccessible American shops. This has changed since, but then I enjoyed an exotic diet.


Thanksgiving was for the family. After my older sisters moved out they made sure to find their way back home on that day. Boyfriends and later husbands, sometime later grandchildren to my parents joined. As our family expanded so did the table and we squeezed around it to share our bread and turkey.


At some point my father always made “The Picture”. Lamplight shone in our eyes and we tried not to squint. We held on to our cheese smile but our facial muscles soon shook from the effort as the preparations stretched and my father looked for the perfect angle, lighting and setup. “Move a little closer”, he said as he climbed on a chair, which wobbled under the tall man’s feet. He climbed down again, took more measurements of the light until he was satisfied, climbed back on the chair and finally we heard the relieving click. Well relieving until my Dad said, “Let’s make another one to be sure” and a collective sigh of “oh no” circled the table. A lot of those pictures have been made over the years as the ritual was repeated whenever we had guests, birthday parties, Christmas or Easter to celebrate saved in numbered albums which we leaf through with enjoyment.


Although we lived in a small town surrounded by farms I did not know any farmers. The land was fast disappearing, swallowed by one suburbia development after another. We lived in one of those new areas. Many of my neighbors came from eastern regions, from which they had fled during or shortly after the war. The new street names were bitter-sweet reminders of their origins: Brandenburg, Sachsen and Thüringen. They grew vegetables in their gardens or even reared pigs and kept hens—more reminders of the land and life they left behind.


The rest of us “Neubürger” (new citizens) had to buy the goods that were offered when it was time for the “Erntedankfest” in church (Harvest Thanks Giving) service.


As a child I did not wonder why I was celebrating either Erntedank or Thanksgiving. It never occurred to me that the celebrations might be related. One was a church celebration that I experienced in a German environment, the other a typical American tradition, which I grew up with, in what I now realize, was an untypical family.


Nowadays the turkey is smaller, not only because we tend to all be on diet, but because European appliances, to which we have switched, are smaller. We can buy the bird in German shops, along with Yams and corn flour. We arrived in this country with little more than a tradition and now our food followed us. The world becomes a bit smaller and more familiar in strange places.


And is that not what Thanksgiving is about, is that not what makes my family so American and so typical after all? We have arrived on unfamiliar shores and are pioneers once more, coming together to celebrate our safe arrival and the making of new lives.



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Thanksgiving – The German Way

“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.



Filed under typical german