Most of you probably know by now about how the Dutch like to spend their Christmases and Sinterklaas holidays – especially with all this press about Zwarte Piet going around – but how do they celebrate Thanksgiving in the Netherlands? You might be thinking “Um…they don’t?” but wait just one turkey-day minute, dear reader! Haven’t you ever heard about Leiden’s Thanksgiving history? *adjusts glasses* Well, then: let me teach you.

For those who don’t know much about Thanksgiving, here’s the basic story: in the 17th century, a bunch of Pilgrim colonists sailed their ship (the Mayflower, to be precise) to North America, fleeing religious persecution in England. There, they celebrated their first corn harvest by sharing a feast with the friendly Native American tribe who taught them how to farm the land. The end.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621. (This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g04961)

Well, not really. Thanksgiving is one of the most popular American celebrations known around the world. It is usually associated with being thankful and charitable during that holiday. Not to mention all the parades and events that are being held all around the United States. But to foreigners, what most sticks out is the image of the typical American family seated around a dinner table filled with delicious dishes and a giant cooked turkey. Since we do not really celebrate this holiday in the Netherlands, you could say that we imagine Thanksgiving in America being a little something like this:

At the end of the article there will be a nice summary of what’s going on in the Netherlands during Thanksgiving. But first, let’s take a closer look at the key part the lovely town of Leiden played when it comes to the origins of Thanksgiving.

So what role did Leiden play with regards to Thanksgiving?

“Hold up!” I hear some of you Dutchies cry. “You left out the part where the pilgrims came to Leiden for over 10 years.” (If you’re not Dutch but you already knew this, then good on you.) Most of us have never heard the full story of Thanksgiving. History teachers tend to leave out the fact that before the pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, they first stopped in Leiden, and stayed there for a long time (though who could blame them? That’s what most of us foreigners living in Leiden do!).

Right next to Nieuwe Rijn, this is where you’ll find the great Saturday markets in Leiden

One of the main reasons they fled to the Netherlands was because the Dutch were more accepting of their religious practices. The Dutch Republic (Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden) certainly seemed more appealing than the disparaging eyes and unwavering religious beliefs of the English.

Why did the Pilgrims leave Leiden?

They actually went to Amsterdam first, where it all was going smoothly for a while. After spreading out to live in Leiden and building new lives, the Pilgrims realised they were changing too much. Worse: they were losing their religion (cue the lamenting tones of R.E.M). They were grateful for everything given to them here, but were struggling to adapt to the Dutch culture, which was now too liberal for their liking. William Bradford, Plymouth’s faithful Pilgrim and Colony governer, said they were being:

‘…drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses.’

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Jeez. He really didn’t agree with the ‘immoral’ Dutch ways. So, fearing this would be the end of their congregation if they didn’t move on, the Pilgrims decided to head to America.

A celebration of life and unity

In 1620, the pilgrim’s emigration from Leiden – where they had worked for about 12 to 20 years – truly began. They left Leiden via the canals, transferred onto a leaky ‘Speedwell’ (a ship built in 1577) in Delfshaven, then finally boarded the famous Mayflower in Southampton. Ultimately, the actual time span between them leaving England and finally completing their famous voyage and great feast is pretty long.

Taken on a cycle around the gorgeous canals of Leiden at dawn

Today’s ‘Day of Thanks’

It was during the Civil war, between 1861 and 1865, that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. Nowadays, Thanksgiving is a time for thanking our families, and the people and/or things in our lives we are most grateful for. What better reason to come to Leiden to celebrate Thanksgiving with us than to spend a day exploring the pretty canals and cobbled streets? From its tiny alleyways to its wide open roads, Leiden is a city which can sometimes feel much smaller than it is (in the best way).

Every year in Leiden there is a Thanksgiving Day Service held at the Pieterskerk, a beautiful church in Leiden. One of the Pilgrim leaders, John Robinson, is actually buried here, which makes it all the more interesting to visit. Or slightly creepy. Or both.

Pieterskerk Leiden
Here you can see the spire of Pieterskerk, Leiden’s Gothic church

Mayflower 400: In 2020 Leiden will commemorate the Pilgrims voyage

If you’re interested in the Pilgrims and their Leiden history, well, you’re not alone. Attention for this interesting story is heating up and in 2020 the city of Leiden, together with the UK, US and the Wampanaog tribe, will celebrate and remember the pilgrims and their voyage. There’s going to be many festivities with regard to freedom, tolerance and the Pilgrims.

In case you want to be part of all of this, I highly recommend you surf to the ‘Mayflower 400’ website (or their Facebook-page or Linkedin, if that’s your cup of tea).

Pilgrim and Thanksgiving Spots to check out in Leiden

The city is home to the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, a cute little medieval house dedicated to the Pilgrims (located on Beschuitsteeg, near the bell tower of the Hooglandse Kerk church). It’s an old building full of furniture, books, maps, engravings and other materials from the Pilgrim times; it’s meant to recreate how these people lived in England, Leiden and New England.

Don’t miss the wall art around Leiden! Here’s one of my favorites

You’ll also find a memorial on the ruins of Leiden’s Vrouwekerk (AKA “lady’s church”) which the museum helped install. The bronze engraving commemorates the history of the church and its connections with the Pilgrims.

The plaque that remembers the Pilgrim Fathers

The square in front the ‘Pieterskerk’

Here’s a little factual nugget for ya: Thanksgiving is also upheld in orthodox Protestant churches on the first Wednesday of November.

Read all about the Pilgrim Fathers in this beautifully preserved house built in the 14th century (cc Herenld / Wiki)

On the third Thursday of every November, you can find traditional Thanksgiving meals (turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy) at restaurants across the country. Some people also eat the typically Dutch Stamppot on this day (a slightly similar dish made with a combo of mashed potatoes and veggies).

A young Rembrandt and the Pilgrims in Leiden

The plot thickens! You know who was a contemporary of the Pilgrims in Leiden? A young painter called Rembrandt van Rijn. Actually, it makes sense that the aspiring master painter (then 16 years old) and the pilgrims ran into each other numerous times. The Latin School where Rembrandt went for his first studies is right at the Pieterskerk Square, all in all an area you don’t want to miss out on during your visit.

The Latin School in Leiden
So much pretty stuff in Leiden

Rumor had it that there was even a short fling between Rembrandt and Mary Chilton, the daughter of one of the Pilgrim leaders. If you’re in Leiden scouting out the Pilgrim spots, you might as well step in the footsteps of a young Rembrandt. We’ve got a complete article on the life of a young Rembrandt in Leiden. And by all means you should visit the excellent (and free!) Young Rembrandt Studio where they have a great movie/experience about the young Rembrandt. Here’s a little time-lapse of it:

Thanksgiving in the Netherlands: what’s going on?

Thanksgiving in the Netherlands is not really celebrated as it would be in America. However, there are still a few events and places around Holland that can help you get your Thanksgiving on.

Your most obvious choice would be to join the small Thanksgiving Day Service held at the Pieterskerk. This year’s service will be held on Thursday 22nd November at 11am. The service will last approximately one hour, and people from all nations and of all faiths are welcome. There will be a Catholic priest, Protestant ministers, a rabbi and a cantor. There will by American music and hymns, as well as the United States Embassy representative who will share excerpts from the President’s annual Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. At the end there will be a small reception with coffee and cookies before everyone goes home to cook their Turkey dinner.

There you have it! Now you know a little more about this not-so-American holiday. Care to join us in Leiden for the celebrations? 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Actually, this is not exactly accurate. Thanksgiving is a National day of mourning for many American Indians. These Pilgrims were not so friendly as we’ve been told. This is why many Native Americans today do not celebrate the landing of the Pilgrims or the European settlers who came after. The history is horrendous – for the Indian and is conveniently forgotten by the West. The Native Americans lost their lands, were treated like animals, and were moved from one reservation to the next until by circa 1896 about 90 percent of the Indians on the American continent died off from starvation or worse, by destroying their culture, their ways to exist off the land which was tied into their spiritual beliefs. There are no historical documents that any Native Americans were invited in 1621. After the alleged celebrations, relationships between the Pilgrims and the Indians deteriorated and led to many wars. Squanto, the Indian allegedly to have aided the Pilgrims was later sold into slavery in Spain. Nice people, hey? (source: The New York Times, ‘Most Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Was Wrong’). Most people need to start reading the histories of the world they were never taught in school. Even a history Masters student at university has to dig deeper since the syllabuses will only list the'” appropriate” books the professor believes are relevant, which usually omit the other side of the historical explanation.
    At the service at Pieterskerk on 22nd November I am willing to wager they will only talk about the “merciful” Pilgrims and Europeans. But nothing about how they grabbed the land Native Americans lived for thousands of years on. Myths are much more pleasant.

  2. Nice compilation with impressive photography.
    Re the comment of Diderot: There is indeed some historical oversimplification in the account on this webpage, but myth busters would be well-advised to avoid creating new myths themselves. Squanto was a slave in Spain years before, not after, the Massachusetts Thanksgiving of 1621 (as a careful reading of the referenced New York Times article will show). There are indications that Indians did participate in some fashion in the feasting then. “Merciful” is not an adjective widely applied to people in colonial New England. The tragic and shameful history of what befell native Americans after the arrival of Europeans is indeed not well-understood by most or at least many people, but it has been extensively researched by scholars, and the history is multifaceted, not simply a matter of just two “sides,” one mythical and well-known, the other real and mostly unknown.

  3. Was there a lawsuit about 1910 where the house of Orange would have fallen if it wasn’t settled in ownership? Doing ancestor research!

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