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How Germans celebrate Thanksgiving

“How do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Germany?” Every November someone innocently inquires. I no longer roll my eyes because it feels nicer when mindless questions land on grace.

Instead I’ll retell the American story. Eventually it will click. Not everyone traces their roots back to the picture book pilgrim story. We best remember our own stories. And our own stories profoundly shape the way we view the world. Germans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s not our story.

True, sometime in September or early October churches may hold a special “Thanks for the Harvest” service. People will donate food for the poor. But it’s not a family holiday celebrated in homes.

I didn’t know much about the traditional American Thanksgiving growing up. The America’s didn’t take up much room in communist education. Even after the wall came down when I was in 6th grade, history class devoted sadly little time to world history. We studied German monarchs. Lots of Louis. Another Henry. Conrad. Otto. Yawn. My mind was elsewhere.

My older sister was fascinated by Native Americans though and would tell me stories. Not sure how she got into it, perhaps from movies. Her hair was darker than usual and she used to pretend being Pocahontas, living in a Teepee. I was fascinated with modern America and thought I’d like to explore it one day.

I did hop on a plane at age 16 to spend a year studying in the States, arriving in late September. By early November, students started talking about Thanksgiving. It sounded like a big deal.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” A friend inquired. “I don’t know. I’ve never celebrated Thanksgiving.” I replied. “Well, you can’t stay in the dorm by yourself!” People protested. What would I be missing? Pumpkin pie? It sounded a bit scary.

“How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?” I inquired. “Oh, we get our whole family together and share a special meal.” Thanksgiving sounded like a dry run for Christmas. “And we watch football.”

I didn’t realize football and a special meal meant the whole campus would clear out. A new friend invited me home for Thanksgiving. We boarded Southwest for a quick jaunt to Southern California. Late November felt like summer. Palm trees swayed in the breeze, people wore shorts and sunglasses. My first Thanksgiving felt warm and my friend’s family warmly embraced me. We squeezed classic Southern California activities into our few days- Disneyland, the beach, Hollywood. It felt like a dream come true after being locked up in a country half my life, collecting postcards.

We shared the special meal. I’d never tried sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie. Admittedly it took a little courage to stick my fork into a dessert based on cold, pureed vegetables. I love vegetables but where I am from, we like to keep our blended squash in the baby food aisle. After a lifetime of sinking my teeth into the likes of shortbread and pastries, custards and cremes your pumpkin pie is a little shocking. Sorry. I am not saying one cannot adjust. It helps to be adequately warned though.

Today marks my 21st Thanksgiving. We’ll gather around the table with family. You’ll have your famous pie. I’ll stick to mashed potatoes and other familiar items.

It was chilly this morning when I went on my run. Frost on branches, glistening grass blades, sparkly sidewalks. World of wonder. Thanksgiving remembers in all sorts of ways.

So how do Germans celebrate Thanksgiving? By joining your table, entering the story from afar. It’s a bittersweet historical celebration it seems. There are always two sides to a story. Today I wish for a world where one people’s celebration would be not be another people’s pain.

Happy Mindful Thanksgiving, everyone!

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8 Replies

  1. Here in Zürich my children and I celebrated with a Thanksgiving dinner consisting of hotdogs! My kids loved and appreciated it. We cannot meet up with family as the children have to leave the house tomorrow morning between 7 and 8 am to go to school. As they say in German “Andre Länder, andre Sitten”. But on December 6 we will celebrate the Swiss “Samichlaus-Tag” St. Nicolas Day. Grüsse aus der Schweiz, Sonja (I absolutely love reading your story of growing up in East Germany!!)

    1. Astrid Melton

      Oh- fun. I always loved St Nicolas day growing up but I have not done it my kids. Thankfully kids can be quite flexible when it comes to holiday traditions.

  2. P West

    I’ve come across the same sort of surprise or shock here when people in (east) Germany find out that other parts of the world don’t really celebrate “Schulanfang”. It’s easy to end up thinking that everyone else must somehow share one’s own cultural experience.

    1. Astrid Melton

      Yup. It’s hard to think beyond ourselves.

  3. Grace

    It is now clear to me that your intended audience is definitely Americans! I had to laugh as I read your post (imagining how your voice would sound telling this story out loud) and wished that you would consider doing an audio download version of these for people who’d prefer to listen rather than read! 🙂

    1. Astrid Melton

      Someday I might translate the blog into German- my parents call it my “block”

  4. Absolutely loved it!
    All the years we’ve lived in Brazil, people in the states have had difficulty understanding that we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving there . . . and, in fact, it was easier for us emotionally to simply treat it as any other day. When we made it an important even on our calendar, we missed family even more.

    This year we were here for Thanksgiving. Fun memories… although, since we have two separate families, it can be a challenge. This year it was easiest for him to go be with his kids and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and me with mine. It was good, we both enjoyed ourselves, and both glad to get home to end the day together.

    It seems like, somehow, although holidays are important, the older we get, the more they are bittersweet. Too many changes in too many lives.

    But, can you imagine the JOY we will have in heaven as we celebrate? ??
    I am beginning to look less at the bittersweet and anticipate more the Joy we have up front

    Love you, much~

    1. Astrid Melton

      I love how content you are with your Thanksgiving solution of splitting up. Makes sense to me. The bittersweet part in my post was a rather subtle hint at what Thanksgiving may mean to Native Americans-seems like a celebration of the beginning of the end.

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