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Celebrating ‘Dankbarzeit’ in Germany

The Local · 24 Nov 2011, 06:56

Published: 24 Nov 2011 06:56 GMT+01:00

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“So what exactly are we celebrating?” asked one German friend at the first Thanksgiving dinner that I prepared in Germany, five years ago.

It all started innocently enough, with 12 Germans and an American friend visiting from New York. We tracked down a turkey, mashed potatoes and improvised a few other side dishes. The following year, I had four-month old twins, 20 people in my living room and my American friend came back with her boyfriend to help with the spread.

Every year thereafter, the total number of celebrants increased tenfold which meant we moved furniture out of the living room, choked the hallway with a buffet table and directed intrepid amateur cooks to painstakingly follow the recipes as instructed. There would be no Rotkohl or Knödel on my Thanksgiving table but rather traditional holiday dishes that my German friends, many of whom chalked American cuisine up to burgers and thick-crust pizzas, had never seen before: stuffing, cranberry sauce, maple glazed carrots, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, green bean casserole and pecan pie.

This year, the kitchen staff will be buffered by 12 American friends who are flying in from New York, London, The Hague, Paris, Vietnam and Kyrgyzstan. Two neighbours in the building have opened guest rooms and their kitchens for the endeavour and we will be stuffing their ovens with two seven-kilo turkeys.

“But what’s this really all about?” my German friend persisted. For many Americans, Thanksgiving is about family, a shared feast and the US version of football. But what my friend actually wanted to know was the holiday’s origins.

Traditionally American

While different theories exist, some historians recognize the “first” Thanksgiving as a celebration following the pilgrims’ successful corn harvest under the tutelage of the Native Americans in what is now Massachusetts in 1621. As an elementary student, my classmates and I drew pictures depicting a harmonious union, new neighbours and friends, shaking hands and passing a drumstick. Unfortunately, the Native Americans couldn’t foresee how later white settlers would repay their gracious hospitality.

But for me, Thanksgiving is not as much about US history as it is about my own. I am an unapologetic traditionalist when it comes to holiday rituals. And if anything, living abroad has reinforced this. These rituals are not about obligation but identity. Serving this meal to friends in Hamburg is a way to feel connected to my home, my childhood and my family. There is something comforting in knowing that although we are several thousand miles apart, we’re all doing the same thing – worrying about whether the bird is going to be too dry, fighting over who gets the wishbone, gloating over graduating from the kids’ table.

Becoming a mother has made the performance of these rituals more important because I know how they shaped my childhood, bookended my own personal narrative, and I want to create these traditions in the same way for my children. And while I carve out a few new traditions of my own, there is one ritual that has become institutionalized over these last five years: something that has come to be known as “Dankbarzeit.”

Perhaps because the German language has an affinity for distilling an entire concept down to one word, I thought Dankbarzeit was a legitimate way to express “a time to be thankful.” Only years later did I discover I had coined my own German term.

It’s a family tradition that not all but many American families uphold: at some point before or after the meal, we would go around the table listing one thing we were thankful for that year. At our house, this came right as the tryptophan coma was setting in and just before the pumpkin and pecan pies were set out. As a kid, I was thankful for tangible things: a new toy, a good grade, my best friend. As an adult, I tend to be thankful for more abstract concepts: community, health, love.

Embarrassed Germans

Story continues below…

O Gott, wie peinlich,” I heard a few German guests whisper under their breath when I first announced what they had to do in order to get dessert. In fact, one friend even ducked out and hid in the bathroom to avoid it. Germans, I was told later by a friend, especially northern Germans, do not appreciate being forced to get personal in front of strangers.

The very first year, our friend Kai started by giving thanks for the UN report on climate control. Fair enough, I thought. But as we went around the circle, things got more intimate.

Martin gave thanks for the amazing woman sitting next to him who he just married. Daniel and Iris, a couple who recently met and fell head over heels, gushed with gratitude for having finally met the right person. Over the next few years there were several proclamations of love and the corresponding thanks given for husbands and wives, for new babies and new jobs. There was also gratitude for the support of family and friends after the loss of a child, a parent, the weathering of a difficult year. At times the room rolled with laughter and other times we choked back tears, but by the end of Dankbarzeit, everyone felt a little less like strangers and a lot more thankful.

Whether they love it or hate it, Dankbarzeit has even become a real German word for our guests. It’s also become a tradition that they have come to think of as the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

09:35 November 24, 2011 by rwk
Thanksgiving is special in America because it has yet to be diluted like other holidays have been. Christmas has become nothing but commercialism, obligation, and abstract symbolism, for instance. Thanksgiving is of humbler, and more recent, origins and remains relatively unblemished. In my family, it has little to do with sports and there is nothing of the forced intimacy that you describe. Rather, it is about friends and family getting together to celebrate each other's company and the memories of Thanksgivings past. The preparation and consumption of o great meal, together, is more important than the particular cuisine. However, I am very fond of the traditional Thanksgiving fare, and would be proud to show off this prize of American gastrology to Germans. However, I am of New England stock and am not entirely sure that my family's traditions are the same as others. Turkey is the center of the meal, and is usually carved by the head of the household, nominally the eldest male. Other dishes are often brought or prepared by visitors to the household. Essential are the turkey gravy and stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, squash (of which pumpkin is one type), a fruit pie (usually apple or blueberry), vegetables (a selection of at least one of green beans, peas, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower). Corn on the cob is often available. Apple cider, often hard (moderately alcoholic) is usually available, but one is not required to imbibe. In my family, every person is expected to contribute towards the meal in either preparation or clean-up, or at least volunteer to do so. Thanksgiving dinner is usually served earlier than other dinners, between 4 and 5pm. After feeding themselves to the point of being full and often sleepy, people depart for the living room (for conversation) or den (for watching football), often traveling between the two, with others in the kitchen or dining room helping clean up. Past 8, many people dine again on what food was left (it is important to have LOTS of food available) and often drink beer or wine. Thanksgiving is not a late holiday: people often leave or retire by 10:30.
09:50 November 24, 2011 by twisted
Two great reviews about what Thanksgiving is all about, the meaning of Thanksgiving and the way we celebrate it. The thought of all that delicious food makes my mouth water.

How in the world do you cook a turkey for 20 plus people in a small German oven unless you enlisted the help of your neighborhood baker? Just asking.

One of the high points of Thanksgiving for me was cold turkey sandwiches on that disgusting soft American white bread (and no other bread will do, thank you), mayonnaise, a slice of stuffing (honestly) and lettuce and tomato. Heavenly.

I do wish some of the larger hotels would put on a Thanksgiving spread but it doesn¦#39;t seem to happen in Hamburg. Went to one hotel a few years ago for a ¦quot;Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner¦quot; with my wife and some friends, but it turned out not to be a traditional Thanksgiving meal but some sort of ¦quot;culinary expression¦quot; of the chef. Awful, AND no mashed potatoes.

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Americans in Germany and to your guests. Enjoy the day and the meal.
10:32 November 24, 2011 by Landmine
Happy -Tday everyone!!!!
10:44 November 24, 2011 by mos101392
@rwk I agree totally and my memories of being with family and friends during Thanksgiving is exactly the way you described it. I also don't believe people should feel compelled to say anything in front of others that would make them feel uncomfortable. Although raised as a baptist, I remember feeling awkward as a soldier when someone would ask to stand, hold hands and pray. I did not want to offend anyone but I also did not want to "kneel" to peer pressure and would just stare on when all the others lowered their heads. It is more important that family and guests feel comfortable about visiting and not having to worry about what others expected. Although I am an American, I can completely understand the feelings of that German guest in the above article that made the comment, ¦quot;O Gott, wie peinlich¦quot;.
12:07 November 24, 2011 by The-ex-pat
09:35 November 24, 2011 by rwk

Thanksgiving is special in America because it has yet to be diluted like other holidays have been. Christmas has become nothing but commercialism, obligation, and abstract symbolism, for instance.

Sadly, I wonder for how much longer. It seems to be more about Black Friday as each years goes by????
12:37 November 24, 2011 by CaSimone
The truth is Thanksgiving is a very old Native American Indian custom to give thanks.

Thanksgiving, Goes back thousands of years.

The custom consisted of giving thanks daily and then to also to have a larger celebrations of thanks through out the year.

This is what they shared with the pilgrims.
14:35 November 24, 2011 by hanskarl
The origin of Thanksgiving as celebrated: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Founders-Religion-and-Government/106677312693315
14:42 November 24, 2011 by noleti
So how about Erntedankfest? The roots are clearly the same. It is just not celebrated as widely in Germany nowadays. I'm surprised thanksgiving is displayed as indian tradition.
15:33 November 24, 2011 by petenick
Every day should be Thanksgiving and everyone should celebrate what we have been given.
18:03 November 24, 2011 by Wise Up!
The real story of Thanksgiving is William Bradford giving thanks to God," the pilgrims giving thanks to God, "for the guidance and the inspiration to set up a thriving colony," for surviving the trip, for surviving the experience and prospering in it. "The bounty was shared with the Indians." That's the story.
20:27 November 24, 2011 by CaSimone
Thanksgiving is a Native American tradition over 12,000 years old, assigned a day of national celebration by Abraham Lincoln.

As a mutt, of nearly all continents, I am fair to nearly a fault, I do not fall to the mistake of marking one culture above another for the sake of pride, all is well, for my blood points me to truth instead.

I am also a descendant from my Great, Great Seneca Indian, grandmother. Seneca is part of the Iroquois Nation, United People of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and then the later addition of Tuscarora, (The United Nations of Iroquois was actually a pre-cursor & prompt to the ideology of "The United States".) These nations lived in homes, not tents, were progressive in social structure comparable and surpassing in ways to everything of that time. They were very much a leading aid to the foundation behind the forefathers ideas and propelled the birth of the woman's suffrage movement and liberation.

I Will Tell you all, Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday but it is one taken from a tradition over 12,000 years old; http://pattyinglishms.hubpages.com/hub/Native-American-Harvest-Feasts

Refer to around the six paragraph on the above page.

I cannot not tell of this when people speak of Thanksgiving and marking it as some day the Pilgrims invented. I have English Blood too, as well as German, Italian, the list goes on....there is no reason for me to side with a story just out of culture obligation. Truth is truth.
00:26 November 25, 2011 by Yael924
@caSimone: No disrespect, but millions of Americans are told of heritages' that are fanicful at best, if not untrue. Everyone is a direct descendent of Davey Crockett or Sacajawea. No one wants to be decended from indentured servants.

No one wants to be the related to the guy from Europe who had a cold and killled 20,000 Natives.

So ease up on the BS, OK? Thanksgiving is a time to remind ourselves of all our blessings. Punkt.
06:35 November 25, 2011 by Frenemy
"Undiluted" holiday my as$. The whole reason I'm back here in the States for the next few days is to indulge in the gluttonous feeding frenzy and rapacious shopping extravaganza that this "holiday" has become known for. I couldn't care less about the sentimental BS described above.

52" flat screen for $199 at BestBuy is what this is all about baby!!! (although hauling this beast back to Cologne is gonna be a b!tch).....
07:50 November 25, 2011 by Gretl
@frenemy - But will it work in Germany?
14:57 November 25, 2011 by MrMooochy
Is there a similar website / news site such as this for ex-pats from Europe / Canada / USA residing in India? I am considering a job offer in India and moving from Germany to the Delhi area for at least three years, would be great to find a similar website such as this for ex-pats living in India.

Many thanks in advance.
18:21 November 25, 2011 by michael4096
'Thanksgiving' is recorded, in one way or another, in just about every culture since records began. At least, those in a seasonal climate. It is also largely the same for very good reasons: offerings to your favourite deity for 'thanks' or maybe a bribe not to forget good weather next season and gluttony because there is lots of food around and it's going to go bad if it's not eaten.

I have no problem believing CaSimone - it happened everywhere else, why not there
18:24 November 25, 2011 by Frenemy
@Gretl: Probably not for regular TV, but I have SKY and wireless HD from my laptop, so it should be fine (voltage is 100-240).
20:29 November 25, 2011 by CaSimone
@Yael924? No disrespect? You know what disrespect means? You're comment was disrespectful and honestly it is as idiotic as trying to tell some one they are not German when their family has been forever. Punkt? lol what the hell is Punkt? swinging some dumb slag around to stamp "cool" at the end of your thoughtless comment? LOL

I am what I am and my family history is mine as much as yours is yours. You can twist my words into truths or lies anyway you'd like in your head. What is, "is".

I will always clarify the history of Thanksgiving day. It is NOT to mar it or degrade it in anyway. It is to bring it into even greater depths and importance. It is a wonderful holiday and it deserves to be shown in truth.

@Michael, you got it. :)
22:04 November 29, 2011 by Ben Mazzullo
Your Thanksgiving Dinner lacks a corn dish. I understand that most Europeans won't eat corn, referring to it as animal fodder 9 is that still true?), but it has a place in one form or another, at every Thanksgiving dinner. Here in Pennsylvania, it served in the form of an old Pa "Dutch" dish, Cope's dried corn, which is reconstituted with evaporated milk as it cooks slowly on the back burner. It comes out sweet and creamy. Wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it. I come from an Italian-American family, my wife from a German heritage, so I have the best of two country's cookbooks. BM
05:44 November 30, 2011 by redlead
I'm from Baltimore - a town that absorbed a huge influx of Germans around 200 years ago, and my dear German Grossmama always served sauerkraut slowly cooked with pig's tails for Thanksgiving.

It's awesome with turkey and the usual trimmings, trust me. Your German friends will be amazed at the flavor combination. Yummy!
08:56 December 5, 2011 by rwk
@Ben Mazzullo - I have corn on the cob, that's a corn dish so to speak...or were you referring to my post? Some people have corn (Maize) bread but I really don't like the stuff. @redlead - New England has had the least influx of Germans of any part of the US. Which is sad, because there is so much of German traditions that I like. Statistically, Pennsylvania first, and later the midwest have the largest amount of German heritage. There are a LOT of German ancestors in America!

In regards to Black Friday, Cyber Monday, etc..I took part not at all. I haven't bought anything other than groceries since the middle of November, and will do very little Christmas shopping. I believe, and I try to spread this idea, that it is more important to get something inexpensive and yet somehow thoughtful than to give something expensive, useless, and unwanted. The ideal gift is something that someone would have purchased for themselves but they hesitated to treat themselves to the pleasure.

We are inundated with Christmas Carols, Sales, wreathes, tree, fat bearded Santa Claus, reindeer, and all the rest of the trapping of commercial Christmas yet again. It is my least favorite time to be in the US.
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