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Leiden was key to the origins of Thanksgiving

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 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. Image: US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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. There are also usually lots of parades and events surrounding the holiday as well.

READ MORE | The pilgrims in Leiden: Where were the pilgrims before they sailed to America?

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. 🍗

Since we don’t really celebrate this holiday in the Netherlands, you could say that we imagine Thanksgiving in America being a little something like this:

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 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 (cue the lamenting tones of R.E.M). 🤭

The pilgrims made their home in Leiden before moving again to the US. Image: Depositphotos

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”

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. 💁‍♀️

Here’s a little factual nugget for ya: Thanksgiving is also upheld in Orthodox Protestant churches on the fourth Thursday of November.

Read all about the Pilgrim Fathers in this beautifully preserved house built in the 14th century. Image: Herenld/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

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! Do 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 Pieterskerk Square — an area you don’t want to miss out on during your visit.

Rumour 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:

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 2022 for your reading pleasure. 

Abigail Claire
Abigail Claire
Abbie, a writer from the UK, fell in love with the Netherlands when she was three years old. When she’s not spending her free time painting canals or playing the guitar, she’ll be off travelling somewhere (and probably getting lost).

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  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.

    • Nice one Sir. This is the truth of ignorance of people for whom the rest of the world are but slaves and highly regard their superiority complex over all else. By the way first time in EU was so unwelcoming and horrendous for many of us. It seems to be the culture…

  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!

  4. Thanksgiving day in Dutch is ‘Dankdag’ in Dutch and is celebrated with a church service in many Dutch churches. In spring, these churches have services for ‘Biddag’ when they pray to God for a successful crop.

      • There was a period when the “correct” day for Thanksgiving in the U.S. was not codified. Since November has four Thursdays five out of seven years, on average, Thanksgiving falls both on the fourth and the last Thursday of the month, except in years when November begins on a Wednesday or Thursday. In my father’s lifetime (He was born in 1904) some celebrated on the fourth and some celebrated on the last Thursday. H
        The more hedonistic observed two Thanksgivings in those special years when there were a fourth and fifth Thursday.

  5. The native peoples were practicing cannibalism (supposedly including a shipwrecked Dutch sailor in Florida who was eaten by the Timucua people), slavery and even scalping before the Europeans arrived The Iroquois Confederacy had a big battle every year against an alliance of Algonquin peoples and those captured were tortured to death. The Europeans did not introduce horror and ugliness. The Pilgrims were rural people trying to live in an industrial city. if they had gone to the rural areas of the Netherlands, particularly dwelling among the Mennonite areas in Friesland, they might have been happier. Also their leader recorded two offers by Dutch business concerns to settle them at the mouth of what is now the Hudson River. Offer included transpiration, protection, animals, tools, grain, food. The only thing was they had to be under the Dutch flag. If it were me, i would be blowing the ink dry after signing the agreement before the offer makers realized how much they had given away. BTW the first documented European to advocate peaceful and fair relations with the native peoples was Frisian, David Pitersz de Vries.

  6. For an excellent, eye-opening, historical account of The Dutch and America, I sincerely recommend your reading “The Island in the Center of the World” by Russel Shorto. Mr. Shorto, an American writer, knows Leiden and the Dutch story very well. He is also the director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam.


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