Erntedank and harvest festivals: The German Thanksgiving
As long as humans have been sowing seeds and reaping crops, they’ve also been giving thanks for their harvests. Thanksgiving in America may be a tradition dating back to the 17th century, but in Germany and the rest of Europe, harvest celebrations have been a fixture since pagan times. We take a look at the Erntedank harvest festival and explain why it’s sometimes considered the “Thanksgiving of Germany”.
The origins of Thanksgiving: The pagan harvest festival
The origins of Thanksgiving go back to pre-Christian times. Back then, celebrations fell on the autumn equinox at the end of September. People would thank the gods of harvests, agriculture and fertility, making them offerings to ensure the success of the harvest next year. Particular attention was paid to the last fronds of grain, which were plaited and preserved over the winter, before being the first to be sowed the following year.
Like so many other pagan festivities, harvest festivals were adopted into Christian celebrations as Europe was gradually Christianised. The plaited fronds of wheat - which became known as a "harvest crown" - were brought into churches, and other autumnal produce was laid out on display to stand as testament to Earth’s bounty.
The focus of these celebrations was on communal worship and thanking God for the harvest. According to Christian belief, God was solely responsible for ensuring that people reaped a good harvest, because everything came from him, including the weather.
In Germany, the celebrations became known as “Erntedank” (harvest thanks) or the “Erntedankfest” (harvest thanks festival). Many elements from the early Christian celebrations are still features of Erntedank in Germany today, which remains a rural, religious celebration, in contrast to its secular (and more famous) cousin in America.
Thanksgiving in America
In America, Thanksgiving is a tradition that goes back to the so-called Pilgrim Fathers. When the first European settlers arrived in America in the 17th century, they were assisted in growing food by native people from the Wampanoag tribe. The story goes that the colonists staged a large festival, in which both settlers and native people took part, to give thanks for their help.
Nowadays, Thanksgiving is a secular festival celebrated in the US in November each year. It is primarily a family celebration with a large feast that includes dishes like turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, corn and cranberries.
Do Germans celebrate Thanksgiving?
Despite the holidays having the same name in English, however, Thanksgiving in Germany is not a big day for family gatherings and feasting - which are typically reserved for Christmas. Instead, the Erntedankfest is more of a religious celebration in rural areas, marked by communal gatherings and fairs, although some similarities between the two festivals are clear.
For this reason, the English translation “harvest festivals” is perhaps a more accurate description of the celebrations that take place in Germany. Although traditions differ from region to region, most include key elements like church services, parades, music, dancing, and displays of seasonal produce.
Image credit: Dvorakova Veronika / Shutterstock.com
When is Erntedankfest in Germany?
Unlike the American Thanksgiving, which almost always falls on the fourth Thursday of November, there is no one fixed date for Erntedankfeste. Depending on the region, harvest festivals in Germany usually take place in September or October, most commonly on the first Sunday in October.
This is the “official” date recognised by the German Catholic Church in 1972, but it is not followed uniformly everywhere, nor is it included in the Church calendar of official observances. In some regions, particularly the Moselle, Erntedank is pulled back to coincide with the wine harvest, as late as the second Sunday in November.
During the Nazi era, Erntedank was celebrated as a national holiday on the first Sunday in October and was ideologically charged with propaganda extolling the virtues of peasants and agricultural workers.
In 2023, Erntedankfest will be marked in many places on Sunday, October 1, but some regions will observe it on a different date.
Is Erntedank a public holiday?
Many of the traditions that surround Erntedankfest celebrations in Germany are steeped in history. Here is an overview of some of the typical elements of a German harvest festival.
As Erntedankfest is primarily a religious celebration, most communities will hold a special church service to mark the occasion. The church observance typically starts with a sermon, followed by a choir singing a song of thanks.
Harvest crown (Erntekrone)
The harvest crown (Erntekrone) is a tradition that has carried through from pagan times. Traditionally, it was made from the last sheaf of wheat brought in at the end of harvest and given to the landowner. The handover ceremony included a church blessing and singing, dancing and food. Over time, the sheaf transformed into a wreath, and nowadays it looks more like a typical crown.
It is constructed from four ears of grain - symbolising hope, faith, concern and gratitude - which are bowed and tied together in a circular shape that stands for eternity. The crown is then decorated with flowers and ribbons. Harvest crowns come in many shapes and sizes, with the more monumental ones also being constructed with wire or wooden frames.
The harvest crown is typically awarded to the chosen harvest queen (Erntekönigin) in a special ceremony that takes place after the Erntedank sermon.
Harvest carpet (Ernteteppich)
A typical feature of some harvest festivals, a harvest carpet (Ernteteppich) is a display of seasonal produce like fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains and sometimes even bread and wine, which is placed on an altar (usually in the church) and demonstrates God’s bounty. After the celebrations, the food is usually given to those in need. In some areas, the display is built around a wagon wheel, the spokes of which are filled with produce to create a beautiful design.
Harvest doll (Erntepuppe)
Harvest dolls (Erntepuppen) are another curious leftover of superstitious pagan belief. They are typically tied from bundles of grain stalks and left in the fields over winter as a sacrifice to ensure a good harvest the next year. Nowadays, harvest dolls are much more monumental - giant figures made out of bales of hay - quite intimidating to come across during a hike through a field in the country!
Plenty of German towns and cities hold their own harvest festivals in September, October and November - with plenty of crossover between the Volksfeste that are virtually ubiquitous at this time of year. These fairs include rides, food stalls and tents dishing out glasses of beer. One of the biggest harvest festivals in Germany is the Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival.
Image credit: in_colors / Shutterstock.com
In Urdenbach in Düsseldorf, Erntedank is spread out into a three-day festival. Celebrations begin on Friday night with a service; on Saturday the church is decorated and a dance party is organised; and on the Sunday there is Mass, then a concert, and then a parade of more than 40 different groups of people in traditional clothes, some of them driving decorated tractors. It is one of the biggest harvest festivals in Germany.
Rural areas in Germany often also stage their own Thanksgiving Day parades, featuring wagons decked out with flowers and other autumnal decorations, groups in traditional clothing, musicians and troupes of dancers. The day’s festivities usually end with plenty of music, food and drink, and dancing.
Image credit: hydebrink / Shutterstock.com
German thanksgiving food
Thanksgiving celebrations in Germany will typically feature some staples of German cuisine: meat, potatoes, vegetables and beer. While the goose was traditionally the most popular dish for Thanksgiving, more recently the celebration in Germany has been “Americanised”, and you may find turkey being served as part of the Erntedank spread.
Bread plays an important role, and most tables will feature a freshly-baked, specially-decorated loaf of bread.
Image credit: dsandig / Shutterstock.com
Celebrate Thanksgiving (Erntedank) like a German
So, whether you’re heading to a harvest festival, attending an Erntedank service in church, or just cooking up a whirlwind of seasonal produce, we wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!