Autumn is here and with that comes the falling of leaves, colder weather, pumpkins and the beginning of the holiday season. If you’ve watched any American television, autumn probably also makes you think of Thanksgiving. Did you know that the Netherlands actually played a small part in the history of Thanksgiving? Or that there are pieces of that history that live on in Leiden? Grab a pumpkin-spiced latte and settle in as we delve into everything you need to know about Thanksgiving in the Netherlands.

The role the Netherlands played in American ThanksgivingYou’ve probably heard the bare bones of the story about the history of Thanksgiving in America. The one where the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England to arrive in what is now known as the state of Massachusetts in North America. With the help of native people from the Wampanoag tribe, they had their first successful crop harvest. The Pilgrims then held a festival with a feast to give thanks for their bounty.

However, what you may not know is that on their journey to North America, the Pilgrims made a detour to the Netherlands – a detour that lasted over 10 years! Fleeing religious persecution in England, the Pilgrims – known then as the Scrooby congregation – decided to move over to the more tolerant Dutch Republic (Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden). First arriving in Amsterdam in 1608, the congregation – led by John Robinson and William Brewster – eventually settled in Leiden, where they lived and worked for around 12 years. 

Why the Pilgrims left LeidenThere are a few reasons why the Pilgrims decided to leave Leiden for a dangerous sea voyage to North America. Firstly, it was hard to recruit new members to the congregation from England because of how challenging it was to adapt to Dutch culture and how difficult it was to find work as non-Dutch speakers. Many of the Pilgrims were also starting to age, which made the work they could get more strenuous, especially because it tended to be hard manual labour. 

Lastly, one of the major reasons that the Pilgrims decided to leave was that their children were being drawn into the Dutch way of life. Many Pilgrim parents were worried that their children were abandoning their religion, losing their English abilities and adopting the more liberal Dutch culture, even leaving their parents in search of better opportunities.

As one of the pilgrims, William Bradford, put it, they were being “drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses”. So, out of fear that the congregation would fall apart, the Pilgrims made plans for their journey to the new world. They left the Netherlands from Delfshaven in a ship called the Speedwell, before boarding the Mayflower in Southampton.

Is American Thanksgiving inspired by the Dutch?One theory suggests that the Pilgrims might have taken inspiration from a Dutch celebration when they had their first Thanksgiving feast. They would have witnessed and participated in the Drie Oktober festival that occurs annually in Leiden.

Every year since October 3, 1574, the city celebrates and commemorates Leiden’s relief from the Spanish siege with parades, feasts and a thanksgiving service in Pieterskerk, which the Pilgrims would have experienced while they were living there. However, giving thanks after a harvest has been a tradition in Europe for centuries, so it’s possible that other factors also contributed to the Pilgrims’ celebration. 

Here you can see what the Drie Oktober Grand Parade in Leiden looks like nowadays:

Video: YouTube / Grizzly Outdoor Adventures

Thanksgiving in the NetherlandsWhile it’s not common for Dutch people to celebrate Thanksgiving and the day isn’t an official public holiday, it may come as a surprise to hear that every year on the fourth Thursday of November, the Pieterskerk in Leiden holds a Thanksgiving Day service for Americans in the Netherlands. Not only that, but quite a few restaurants in the Netherlands have Thanksgiving meals on the menu to honour the American holiday. 

Visit Pilgrim and Thanksgiving spots in LeidenEven though the Pilgrims stayed in the Netherlands for what seems like a short period of time in the grand scheme of things, there are a few places in Leiden where their sojourn in the city is embraced. 

Leiden American Pilgrim MuseumIf you want to learn more about the significance of the Pilgrims in the Dutch-American heritage, the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum is the place to go. In a house dating back to the 14th century, there are rooms that contain furniture and artefacts from the Pilgrims’ time in Leiden. 

Video: YouTube / Mayflower400NL – Leiden400

PieterskerkWhile the Pilgrims were in Leiden, they lived near the Pieterskerk and are known to have used the church for their services. It is also the final resting place for Robinson and some other Pilgrims. Nowadays, the church has a section dedicated to the Pilgrims and also holds an ecumenical service every year on Thanksgiving Day. 

VrouwekerkAnother church the Pilgrims made use of during their time in Leiden was the Vrouwekerk. It has since been taken down, but there is a memorial that can be visited, located on the ruins of the former church, to commemorate its connections with the Pilgrims. 

Happy Thanksgiving!The connection between the Netherlands and the American Pilgrims is an interesting one and makes for a great Thanksgiving story. Do you celebrate Thanksgiving Day in the Netherlands? For those who do celebrate the holiday, we wish you and your family a happy Thanksgiving!


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