It seems that most countries around the world set aside time to give thanks or celebrate a harvest. In the United States and Canada we call it Thanksgiving, in Swaziland it’s called Incwala, in Argentina they have the Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia and in Germany, the people celebrate Erntedankfest. But what is Erntedankfest? Does the whole family come together? Do they eat Turkey and pumpkin pie or is it Schweinebraten? Why exactly are they giving thanks? Let me share a few Erntedankfest traditions with you, and explain how it’s not quite like our American Thanksgiving.
What is Erntedankfest?
Growing up in the US, I knew that on the 4th Thursday in November, there will be Turkey for dinner in many homes. Maybe some stuffing, and sweet potatoes… green beans and pumpkin pie. (I’m sure I’m not the only one whose German mom actually preferred making a pork roast, but that’s another story…). In school we colored Pilgrims and made Indian Headbands. Thanksgiving was a way of celebrating a successful Harvest after a very difficult start in the United States. The settlers were thankful for surviving, and growing enough crops to see them through the winter. It is a secular holiday… that is, not based on religious tradition.
Ertedankfest goes back a little further than that, in fact, there is evidence that Erntedankfest celebrations happened thousands of years ago. In Germany, Erntedankfest (literally translated “thanks for the harvest festival“) is a religious holiday, and is celebrated both in the Catholic and Protestant churches. The alter is decorated with sheaves of wheat, and the fruits of the harvest. There is singing, celebration, and often a second service in the evening. After the second service, many communities have a Lanternumzug (Lantern Parade) like St Martin’s day, and even fireworks.
Erntedankfest started as a rural festival. A way of giving thanks for the Harvest, and finally relax after months of work. Today, even though harvesting is done with machines, people still give thanks, and celebrate.
When is Erntedankfest?
In 1972, the Catholic church decreed that Erntedankfest be celebrated on the first Sunday in October, which is the first Sunday after Michaelstag (Michaelmas) on September 29. (Why then? Michaelstag is close to the Fall Equinox, and is one of the 4 dividing days of the Church Calendar. Tradition says that all harvest must be completed by Michaelmas, so the farmer can move on to the winter phase of the cycle.)
In 2019, Oct. 6th is the first Sunday in October
Today, many communities do celebrate on that first Sunday, but others, depending on the crops they are harvesting, may celebrate later in October. In wine growing regions they call it Winzerfest!
A few communities make a 3 day celebration out of the Erntedankfest. In Dusseldorf-Urdenbach, celebrations begin on Friday night with a Mass. On Saturday they complete the preparations by decorating the church, and have a dance party. Sunday there is Mass, then a concert at Piel’s Loch with a feast of local specialties, and then a parade with all 40 participating groups wearing traditional clothing and driving decorated tractors. The whole weekend is fun, with rides for kids, and delicious food booths for everyone.
Some Erntedankfest Traditions
The Church Altar is typically decorated with large crowns of wheat (to represent the continuing seasons) and a display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Big decorated bread loaves make a beautiful addition to the display.
In some communities, baskets are filled with locally harvested produce, and bread baked from local grain. These are blessed and distributed to the needy.
Many communities choose a Harvest Queen, who wears a wreath made of wheat on her head. She is presented at the Harvest parade.
In Pommern, the last sheath of grain from the field was fashioned into a figure called “Der Alte”, the Old One. There is a superstition that if a girl tied this last sheath, she would never marry, or would end up with an old crippled husband (I’m guessing they had a sturdy wife or man bind it up). Der Alte woudl be taken to the local lord of the Manor who would give them a bag of money to pay for refreshments.
Erntekkrone, Harvest Crown, is a wreath built up on a pole. The base would naturally be wheat, but it would then be decorated with ribbon and paper flowers (sort of similar to a Maypole). The Erntekrone would be hung in a prominent place at the home of the family hosting the Harvest celebrations.
Erntedankfest in Spreewald
In the evening, children participate in Laterneumzuge or Lantern Parades, similar to the St Martin Parades.
One very old tradition says that in order to keep the “Grain Demon” away from your crops, you must weave or braid together the last three, seven, or nine head of grain in a beautiful pattern, and keep it in the house as a good fortune-bearer. The next spring this grain would be the first ones sown.
Of course, no Church Service would be complete without the singing of “Nun Danket alle Gott” (Now Thank We all our God”)
What are some Traditional Erntedankfest Foods
Erntedankfest Meals typically use loads of freshly harvested produce. Wheat and honeycomb also play an important role. You will always find bread on the table… often a special decorated loaf.
In recent years, thanks to Television and Travel, the Turkey is making an appearance on the Erntedankfest table. Alternatively, people will serve a capon, or other large roasted bird.
Essen und Trinken (my favorite German Cooking Magazine) has some nice recipes for an Erntedankfest Buffet… Click here to see–>Erntedankfest Buffet (The recipes are in English, but if you are in the Chrome browser, you can click the squares on the right end of the URL bar for a translation)
German Children’s books to Help Explain Erntedankfest
Teach the next generation about Erntedankfest with these Children’s books… they are in German..
So, What is Erntedankfest?
Erntedankfest is a celebration of the Harvest. It’s a way of thanking God for the gifts of the earth, and an end to the Season of hard work.
I wish you a Happy and Blessed Erntedankfest.