Celebrating ‘Dankbarzeit’ in Germany

As millions of people prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, Jiffer Bourguignon cooks up her own German version of the intrinsically American holiday.

Celebrating ‘Dankbarzeit’ in Germany
Photo: M. Rehemtulla

“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

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.

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Only in Germany: McDonald’s begins offering ‘Spargel Burger’

Amid Germany's famous 'Asparagus Season', the fast food chain has begun offering an unusual twist on typical ingredients.

Only in Germany: McDonald's begins offering 'Spargel Burger'
A basket of Spargel in Kutzleben, Thuringia marked the start of this year's season on April 14th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Martin Schutt

How do you know that you’re definitely in Germany? One sure fire way: when you check the menu of a McDonald’s in the springtime and see a ‘Spargel Burger’. 

Germans are so enamored by the ‘white gold’ –  special light-coloured asparagus which is much thicker than its North American green counterpart – that it’s now a featured fast food at McDonald’s Germany, and with classic Hollandaise sauce and bacon to boot. 

On Thursday, the popular American fast-food chain restaurant – which counts nearly 1,500 outlets in Germany – published a photo of the “Big Spargel Hollandaise” saying that it would be available at select restaurants. They assured customers: “Yes, it’s really there.”

But its release was met with mixed reactions. “We absolutely have to go to McDonald’s sometime,” wrote one. Yet another called the unconventional creation “perverse.”

Another commenter showed skepticism: “Hollandaise sauce on a burger? Does that even taste good?”

Others weighed in on social media to point out that the product is a sign of Germany’s fascination with the vegetable. 

The burger is the latest to join the asparagus craze, with a phallic-shaped Spargel monument in Torgau, Saxony capturing the public attention – or bewilderment – earlier in the week.

An annual tradition

Every year, Germany typically celebrates ‘Spargelzeit’ (asparagus season) from the middle of April until June 24th, which many dub ‘Spargelsilvester’ (Asparagus-New Year’s Eve). 

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Spargelzeit

The beloved vegetable, harvested heavily around the country, usually has its own special menu devoted to it at restaurants, and is sold in supermarkets – or road-side stands – next to jars of the classic Hollandaise sauce. 

The top states which grow the crop are Lower Saxony, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, but Beeliz, Brandenburg is also synonymous with Spargel in Germany. 

In normal years the tiny town hosts a sprawling festival to mark the start of the season, anointing a Spargel king and queen.

READ ALSO: Here’s why Germans go so completely crazy for asparagus