You may very well know by now how the Dutch like to spend their Christmas 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 us teach you. 🤓
The history of Thanksgiving
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 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!
Well, not really. Thanksgiving is one of the most popular American celebrations — and well-known around the world. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, and is associated with being thankful and charitable.
But to foreigners, what most stands out is the image of the typical American family seated around a dinner table filled with delicious dishes and a giant cooked turkey. 🍗
So what role did Leiden play with regard to Thanksgiving?
“Hold up!” we hear some of you Dutchies cry. “You left out the part where the pilgrims came to the Netherlands for over 10 years.” And it’s true — 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 the Dutch city of Leiden, and stayed there for a long time — though who could blame them? That’s what most of us foreigners living in Leiden have done! 🤣
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?
The pilgrims 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 that they were changing too much. Worse: they were losing their religion.
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 governor, said they were being “…drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses.” 👀
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 and transferred onto a leaky “Speedwell” (a ship built in 1577) in Delfshaven. Then, they finally boarded the famous Mayflower in Southampton.
Ultimately, the actual time span between the pilgrims leaving England and finally completing their famous voyage and the great feast is pretty long.
Today’s “day of thanks” in Leiden
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 reflecting on the people and things in our lives we are most grateful for. 🙏🏻
What better reason to come to Leiden than to celebrate Thanksgiving, spending a day exploring the pretty canals and cobbled streets? From its tiny alleyways to its wide-open roads, Leiden is a city that 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. 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.
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.
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. 💁♀️
In the rest of the Netherlands, thanksgiving isn’t that big of a deal — but many American expats are bringing the traditions a little closer to their origins.
If you want to celebrate Thanksgiving in the Netherlands, you can find traditional meals (turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy) at restaurants across the country.
Grab your friends and family and enjoy! Lekker!
Now you know a little more about this not-so-American holiday. Do you have any fun facts about the pilgrimage? Let us know in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2018, and was updated in November 2023 for your reading pleasure.