Thanksgiving is one of those wonderful fests that are celebrating a harvest successfully finished. The ancient Greeks had their festivals as well as the Romans, and I’m pretty sure that any culture with agriculture and livestock breeding celebrates another year of successful farming as the cycle is fulfilled once more.
In Germany, Erntedank (pronounce air-n-tah-‘dunk, meaning “harvest thanks”) is celebrated in early fall, the Sunday after Michaelmas. Church choirs and altars are decked with fruit and vegetables, and all the kindergartens belonging to each respective church show up. It’s a family service centering on the children’s performance, these days. Which also means that, due to lack of discipline, you often witness quite some screaming and running around. Most often, therefore, I rather took a long walk on German Erntedank Sundays, looking across the harvested fields around our suburbs. There usually were still some fields full of cabbage, pumpkins, or late garden flowers. I gave my private little thanks in silence there and then.
In comparison, my very first American Thanksgiving will probably always stand out as my most memorable one. It didn’t take place at any family home. And it didn’t take place in the United States at all, but in England, where my husband-to-be was stationed at that time. He had chosen a tiny Baptist church in the East Anglian town of Brandon to be his spiritual home, and he asked me to come along and meet his congregation on that very special day in that November ten years ago.
I remember it was an icy-cold night, and the room in the back of the inconspicuous little church was warm and humming with people. There were a whole lot of kids all ages, all well-behaved, playing with each other or sticking with their parents. The pastor and his wife had taken charge of laying tables and creating the buffet. Everybody found themselves some task to help with the dinner we would share. I was proud to contribute the brownies we had made at home the same morning.
Not knowing anybody was not a problem at all. Pretty soon I was in the middle of the happiest of conversations with people young and old. I wondered that there were whole families of three generations preferring to celebrate here at the mission church instead of their homes. That’s when it struck me that the real Christian Pilgrim spirit is still very much alive in Americans.
We sat down at the long tables with people we might not really know. But it felt like we were united by our faith. The cold outside and the warmth inside gave us the sense of being a herd sheltered in security. And sharing the dinner made it very much like one of those biblical meals where plenty is left over, because everybody takes care to leave something for their brothers and sisters.
The buffet made it very obvious how wonderfully fed we are, and what a variety of dishes you can create from the same basic ingredients. Prayer and historical remembrance rounded out that deeply serious, yet also very serene occasion. We certainly knew that night what we were celebrating.
I have to admit that I came to love the American version of Thanksgiving instantly so much more than the German one. Maybe the history behind it gives it so much more specific meaning. The dire need in the Pilgrims’ story makes it so much more palpable what it means to survive through Nature’s edible treasures. I know that for a lot of people Thanksgiving is mainly a family fest with heaps of food. Yet, I appreciate the serious, yet serene pensiveness of an American Thanksgiving. Such as that one on an icy-cold night in a tiny mission church far from home.