Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving, Netherlands Edition

Pieterskerk, Leiden

The sky is an overcast gray and a chill breeze tosses orange and brown leaves across brick walkways. The Pieterskerk, while not the tallest church in Leiden, offers warm invitation to the festive Americans flocking through the red doors. This is Thanksgiving in Holland, in the city, as I learned, where the Pilgrims lived for 11 years before boarding the Mayflower for the New World. The Pieterskerk was their church where they worshipped, married, and mourned from 1609 to 1620. The church even goes so far as to suggest the inspiration for the Thanksgiving feast came from the celebrations held there in honor of Dutch freedom after the Eighty Years War with Spain--it's up to you if you agree with that.

List of Pilgrim family buried at the church.
The sounds of American English fills the inside, with a few Dutch, British, and other accents thrown in to remind us we are still in Europe. There is a good turn out, and though not every chair is filled the crowd fills the space well. A line of adorable children in pilgrim costumes greet visitors with "Happy Thanksgiving!" as they hand out programs.

The deep and powerful notes of the organ reverb throughout the stone and calls everyone's attention. A procession of boy and girl scouts start the ceremony with the presentation of both the American and Dutch flags. They are followed by a line of little pilgrims and the choir performs an elegant rendition of "My Country 'tis of Thee."

Afterwards, the deputy mayor of Leiden wishes everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. This is followed by several other speakers, including a Dutch descendant of one of the Pilgrim families who had several members remain behind (and 400 years later, their family still lives there!) who gave some background on Dutch-American ties, and an essay from a student of one of the American schools on what Thanksgiving means to her

An official from the American embassy remarks on the President's Thanksgiving Proclamation. He points out that one hundred years ago, amidst the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the first proclamation to make the last Thursday of November a national holiday for thanks and reflection:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

He also cites President Kennedy's proclamation, issued just before his assassination 50 years ago:

Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers--for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.


 The second half of the ceremony is for prayers and readings which are interspersed by performances by the choir and band. Afterwards, visitors mill around to look at the church, enjoy some coffee and cookies, and chat. I overhear one remark from a young American woman who, having just moved into a house, is hosting Thanksgiving for the first time. Like myself, she is celebrating this weekend, when the Dutch invitees are not working. She observes that while she has all kinds of expectations for Thanksgiving, her Dutch in-laws have none! This is good to remember when you are at the grocery store and have trouble finding the sweet-potatoes, marshmallows, jell-o, pumpkin, and turkey. To be fair, if you know where to go, you can usually get what you need or something similar, but it is a learning process!

Many graves date from the 1600s.
Looking around the church, I find many graves under foot, the designs worn smooth from countless feet passing over, as well as a few sarcophagi. The church was built in 1121 and was Catholic until 1572, after which it became Dutch Reformed until it was secularized in 1975. 

As the crowd begins to trickle out to the surrounding neighborhood, they spread the good cheer fostered by the event into a city otherwise shrouded in a gray fall day. A few venture towards the American Pilgrim Museum down the street, and the rest head home to the warmth of their own Thanksgiving celebrations.

Back of the church.

A couple very male lions with Leiden's key motif decorate one of the surrounding buildings.

Looks like winter is around the corner!

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