German Traditions and Customs in America
According to the American Cornhole Association (www.playcornhole.org), cornhole “has been called many things, Corn Toss, Bean Bag, Bean Toss, Soft Horseshoes, Indiana Horseshoes, but to many of us born and raised in Kentucky and the southern part of Ohio, the game is passionately referred to as Cornhole.” It also notes that it is thought that the game originated in Germany in the 14th century, and then appeared in the Tri-State area in the 19th century.
The game’s appearance in the 19th century corresponds with the beginnings of the great waves of German immigration to the region, which brought with it a wide variety of other regional specialties, such as Goetta, for example. Although the game emerged in Cincinnati, it more specifically seems to have come out of Cincinnati’s West Side, as well as Northern Kentucky, which are areas where the German element has especially concentrated.
An article on the game in the Cincinnati Enquirer (July 14, 2002) noted: “While the game rages on the West Side, it is creeping eastward with the speed of a distracted tortoise. It must be known that many West-Siders’ entire pride is rooted in Cornhole, and the word itself is plastered on restaurant marquees, telephone post signs, bar advertisements, and the occasional tattooed arm.” More recently (December 2005), the Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. has declared itself “the official beer of Cornhole.” Also, the Hofbräuhaus Newport set up Cornhole platforms in its Biergarten, thereby further demonstrating the popularity of the game.
Like Goetta, Cornhole is relatively unknown outside of the Greater Cincinnati area, which clearly indicates its regional character. Although it is now played elsewhere, it seems to have been transferred by Cincinnatians to other locations. The exact origins of the game appear to be elusive, but like Goetta it may have rural origins going back to the Middle Ages. Also, it may have connections with German games, such as “Stein stossen” or stone throwing. Due to the fact that no direct references to the game can be found in histories of German games it might well be a German-American creation that developed on the West Side of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
FAT TUESDAY - FASTNACHT
Fat Tuesday is the common English term for the day of festivities before Ash Wednesday. In English this is also called Shrove Tuesday as a shrift, or written confession, was usually made in preparation for Lent. In German this is known as Fastnacht, the night before the Fast. It is the culmination of a month-long period of celebration called Mardi Gras in French. New Orleans, for example, uses this term for its well-known celebration and festivities. In German this is called Fasching and is celebrated across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, but almost exclusively in areas that are Catholic.
Another name for Fasching is Karneval, a word that was imported from Italy in the 18th century, and is common in the Rhineland area. Karneval and Fasching are celebrated widely, but differently in different areas, such as Cologne, Mainz, Munich, etc. German-Americans also celebrate it across the U.S. As a result of the Reformation it has largely disappeared from Protestant regions.
Fasching is the last celebration before the lean and somber time of Lent. In German heritage areas in America it is more accurately described by the German term Fasching, rather than Mardi Gras, and at the very least should be referred to as German Mardi Gras, so as to clarify that it is a German-style festivity, rather than a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras. Being connected to the church calendar, the roots of Fasching go back some time in church history.
Around the year 600, Pope Gregory initiated a forty-day period of fasting before Easter. However, it was not until 1091 that a church council officially fixed the date for Fastnacht as the evening before Ash Wednesday. According to this ruling, it should be 40 days before Easter, an event in the church calendar also set by a church council (325 A.D.). The period before Fastnacht is called Fasching, which comes from the German word Fastschank, which means the last drink before the fast. The term Fasching itself is the Bavarian form of Fastschank. Fastnacht, or Fat Tuesday, is a time to celebrate and think about the coming period of fasting, and what you must give up, or renounce.
Fasching officially begins on the 11th of November at 11:11A.M., at which time a king and queen are chosen for the celebration. The festivities, however, do not really begin until after the season of Advent, in January. The church ruled that Fasching should run from Epiphany, the 6th of January through Fastnacht. Christmas originally had been celebrated on the 6th of January, but the Roman Emperor Constantine moved it to the 25th of December, so that the January date then became Epiphany, and brought the Advent season to a close. This previously had been a Roman day of celebration in honor of the sun god, the god of peace and plenty. By moving Christmas to December, the celebrations that took place in January could now continue as part of the Christian calendar, and thereby incorporated the Roman tradition of celebration in January.
The final days leading up to Fastnacht include several noteworthy festivities. The Thursday before Fastnacht is Altweibernacht, or old wives’ night, is a fest in honor of women and is historically known as one of the wildest celebrations during Fasching. On the Saturday before Fastnacht there is a Kehraus Ball, or sweep-out dance to help bring Fasching to a close, and get ready for Lent. Rosenmontag refers to the Monday before Fastnacht, and is also known as Shrove Monday and Crazy Monday. On this day there are large parades and processions through the streets of various cities, where Fasching is celebrated. The term itself derives from the German verb “rosen,” which roughly translated means to enjoy one’s self by having a wildly good time.
The costumes worn during Fasching often have historical significance. For example, a king and queen are chosen in November, and they and others historically wore costumes depicting royalty, which was a way not only to poke fun at, but also to exert a harsh critique on the well-to-do nobility in the German states. Costumes, therefore, had political undertones to them, and were one way of making a statement, which were taken note of by the ruling classes of the past. In the Rhineland costumes often resemble French-style military uniforms, and were originally worn to protest the French army of occupation during the Napoleonic era. Prussian-style uniforms were worn to demonstrate admiration of Prussia and one of its great kings, Frederick the Great.
Some food items commonly associated with Fat Tuesday/Fastnacht are various kinds of jelly-filled doughnuts. The various versions have different names depending on the region, such as: Fastnacht-Kuchen, or Küchle. In Austria, they are known as Faschings-Krapfen, and the Saturday before Fastnacht is known as Schmalziger Samstag, or Fat Saturday, which is the day on which they are prepared. Other versions are: Berliners and Bismarcks. Such pastry is common with other Central European groups. Polish-Americans, for example, call their pastry Paczki (Punch—key), which are similar to the German pastry items associated with Fastnacht, and are also popular with German-Americans and others as well. Fasching pastry as a rule is deep-fried in fat, as in the last days of Fasching before Lent all the lard in the family pantry was supposed to be cleared out and used up. The following verse from Bavaria illuminates their importance:
Lusti is die Fasinacht,
Wenn die Bäurin Küachl bacht.
Bacht sie aber koane
Pfeif’ I auf die Fasinacht!
Fastnacht is fun
When the farmer’s wife bakes
But if she doesn’t bake any
Then I wouldn’t care less about
GOETTA - A GERMAN-AMERICAN SPECIALTY!
“Vas you effer in Zinnnati?” is the name of a song that was popular in the early 1900s, and if you ever were in the Greater Cincinnati area, you might have possibly sampled the local German delicacy known as “Goetta.” You might have also asked what it is, and where it comes from. The answers tell a lot about the German heritage of the area. Goetta is derived from the Low German word Götta, or Grütze in High German, and groats in English. The Low German term Göttwurst (Grützwurst in High German) refers to a sausage consisting of pork, beef, oatmeal (pinhead or steel cut), and spicing.
German immigrants from northwestern Germany, especially Oldenburg, Westphalia, and Hanover, brought the recipe and term to the area, as well as to German-American communities in the Ohio Valley. Goetta also represents a direct German loan word into the German-American English spoken in the area. It also reflects specific regional origins in northwestern Germany and the process of chain migration to the Ohio Valley.
Regional variations of goetta are produced across Germany, but known by other terms, especially by the High German term Grützwurst. An obvious example is Pennsylvania German scrapple, which consists of similar ingredients, but uses cornmeal, rather than oatmeal. Goetta is usually prepared in loaves, sliced and fried, but is also available in sausage links. Some also prepare goetta by breaking it up and frying it as ground meat. Family recipes and preparation also may vary, reflecting local preference and tradition. Originally, goetta, like scrapple, was also prepared as a loose porridge that was scooped up with bread from a bowl, thus indicating its probable medieval origins as a farmhouse food item. By the nineteenth century, however, the recipe in northwestern Germany had developed into the firmer loaf-like texture that was brought to this area.
Traditionally eaten as a breakfast food, goetta is now served at all mealtimes, and also as a snack food. Recent innovations include the development of goetta links and goetta pizza, thereby demonstrating its popularity in the area. Goetta is also featured at local restaurants, church events, and German-American functions. Moreover, Goettafest is now celebrated during the summer in both Covington and Newport.
A basic dietary ingredient in the region, goetta serves as a cultural marker that exemplifies the extent of influence exerted by the German immigration. Produced by several companies and various regional meat markets, the main company producing goetta today is Glier's Meats of Covington, producing more than one million pounds annually at its Goetta Place address, the largest goetta plant in the U.S. Others include Finke’s Market in Ft. Wright, which makes 50,000 pounds each year, both traditional and hot and spicy flavors, and the Hoffman Sausage Company in Cincinnati.
At one time, most of the local butcher shops in the region made their own goetta recipe for retail sale. When the Finke’s operated their 824 Main St. location in Covington, they sold goetta to the nearby Irish, calling it “Irish mush.” The family has been making and selling the product since George Finke opened his shop in 1876.
A typical recipe consists of the following:
1 pound ground pork and 1 pound ground beef
8 cups water
2½ cups oatmeal (pinhead or steel cut). Dorsel’s Pinhead Oatmeal is preferred.
1 large onion, sliced
1 to 4 bay leaves, optional (2 teaspoons of savory may be used instead of the onion and bay leaves)
2 teaspoons of salt
1 pinch of pepper
Boil the water in a large pot with a lid; add the salt, pepper and the oatmeal. Then cover and cook for two hours, stirring the mixture often.
Next add the meat, onion and bay leaves, and mix well. This should then cook for another hour with continual stirring. Then the bay leaf is removed and the goetta is poured into bread pans, and refrigerated overnight.
To serve, goetta can be sliced and fried until it is crispy, or just heated, and also can be crumbled up and fried. It can be served as a breakfast food with eggs, pancakes, etc., or served on bread, or rolls as a sandwich. Those not wanting to prepare can readily find goetta in area meat markets and grocery stores, or at Findlay Market in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district.
German customs in February begin with Groundhog Day on the 2nd of the month. This is a custom brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants, who had been farmers in southwest Germany, especially the Palatinate. The 2nd of February is Candlemas Day, the day on which a candle-lit mass was held to lighten up the dark days of winter. On this day the clergy distributed candles to their parishioners, and the event became an important date in the calendar, when people took particular note of the weather, as well the supplies on hand for the duration of the winter. A common saying was:
Lichtmess, Spinna vergess,
Un’s Fuder halwer g’fress.
Candlesmas, forget spinning,
Our fodder is half eaten.
Another verse runs as follows:
Wenn’s an Lichmess stürmt und schneit
Ist der Frühling nicht mehr weit;
Ist es aber klar und hell,
Kommt der Lenz noch nicht so schnell.
When it storms and snows on Candlemas Day,
Spring is not far away; if it’s bright and clear;
Spring is not yet near.
The custom developed of looking for signs of spring, or the continuation of winter. This became attached to catching sight of a hedgehog, originally a bear, and if it was sunny and a shadow was cast, then winter would last six more weeks. A cloudy day without shadows meant a much shorter winter. In America, the groundhog became the animal of choice to predict the length of winter.
By the mid-19th century, Groundhog Day had spread beyond Pennsylvania, which declared the day state day of commemoration by the end of the 19th century. In the 1920s, the Pennsylvania Germans popularized the festivity to the point that it eventually became nationally known and celebrated. The 1993 Movie “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, made the event even more popular. Not to forget is the fact that the origins of Groundhog Day go back to the Pennsylvania Germans, and that this is just one more item that shows the extent of German influence on the American Way of Life.
There are many songs and poems about Groundhog Day, and one of the recent of the more recent ones is as follows:
I'm a Little Groundhog
(Tune: "I'm a Little Teapot")
I'm a little groundhog short and stout,
February second I will come out.
If I see my shadow they will shout,
"Six weeks more winter without doubt!"
The American custom of Halloween took on a particularly German dimension in Cincinnati, where children would go from door to door as elsewhere, but instead of singing “Tricks or treats, money or eats,” they would simply sing “Kuechele, Kuechele.” This custom was widespread up into the mid-20th century and was not confined to children of German descent. For example, one Cincinnatian of non-German background asked why he and other children had always said “Kigili, Kigili (his spelling), when they went from door to door on Halloween. This of course was actually a request for “Kuechele,” the German word for a little cake, or donut. So, in Cincinnati, kids actually got into the swing of the Halloween custom by asking for donuts, when they went from door to door on the 31st of October.
Why they would ask for this is a matter of conjecture, but most probably derives from the traditions of another celebration – Fat Tuesday/Fastnacht, when one eats as many donuts, especially those filled with jelly, as possible. It is likely that the association of donuts with this event was transferred over to another fun-filled event that German-Americans associated with festivity. In short, a German custom from one celebration most likely was transferred and incorporated into Halloween, a custom of non-German origin, thus making it amenable and understandable to those of German descent.
MAY FESTIVAL/MAIFEST: Why do we celebrate it?
Since 1873, the May Festival has been celebrated in Cincinnati, and every year it signifies and beckons the arrival of the fresh, new season of spring. The May Festival, or Maifest celebrates, however not only the new season, but also everything that comes with it: from the sunny blue skies, warmer temperatures, green leaves, to the birds and blossoms. But it is also a basic celebration of the rejuvenation of nature, as well as a celebration of life itself.
The idea of celebrating an annual Maifest was first proposed by Heinrich Roedter, editor of the Cincinnati Volksblatt, the first German-language weekly newspaper of the West. Roedter, a refugee of the 1832/33 Revolution in Germany, had come to America as a Dreissiger, or Thirtyer, as the exiled participants of that revolution were called. The revolution had begun at Hambach in May 1832. Seeing that there were few German-style festivities in the area, Roedter conceived of the idea of a Maifest to celebrate spring, but also in honor German heritage, especially the freedom fighters of May 1832.
The idea caught on, but in the pre-Civil War years it was not really feasible to have a citywide festival given the anti-immigrant Know nothing sentiment. Indeed, at that time German picnics often became the target of nativist rowdies. For example, one picnic of the Cincinnati Turners, headquartered on Walnut St. in the Over-the-Rhine district, turned into a near riot, because someone had snatched a beer stein from a Turner, who thereupon took a swing at the ruffian.
One person who responded enthusiastically to Roedter’s idea was Heinrich A. Rattermann of the German Mutual Insurance Co, located in the Germania Building at 12th & Walnut St. in Over-the-Rhine. After the Civil War, he had become a leading member of the local German singing societies, which in 1849 had formed the German-American federation of singing societies, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in Cincinnati in 1999.
By the 1870s, Anglo-Americans noticed what a great time the German singing societies had at their fests, and decided to join forces with them. In 1873, the first May Festival was held, and planned by an executive committee chaired by Col. George E. Nichols, who was assisted by his wife Maria Longworth Nichols. The 12-person committee aimed to cultural diverse, and included four German-American on the committee, including Rattermann. The fest was said to have represented the best of Anglo-German community cooperation.
Although some Germans complained that there was not enough festivity and Gemütlichkeit in the first May Festival, they were pleased that many German composers were on the program, and that the conductor had been Theodor Thomas. A popular part of the May Festival was a direct loan from the German singing societies – the Sängerfest, at which all of the various choral societies, as well as the audience joined in harmony together.
Today, the May Festival is still going strong at the Music Hall, built with funds from another area German, Reuben Springer, and there is an annual Maifest in the MainStrasse German Village in Covington, and some of the societies in the area sponsor Mayfest-related events, dinners, and dances. All of these activities would have pleased Heinrich Roedter, who first proposed a celebration of May back in the 1830s. Even if you cannot attend the May Festival, the Maifest, or some other related event, you might try sampling some of the annual varieties of Maiwein, or May Wine, a spring wine spiced with a bit of woodruff. Just another annual tradition connected with May!
|Marilyn Simon, Cincinnati|
OKTOBERFEST IN AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER?
On the 12th of October in 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, who later on became King Ludwig I, married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburg-hausen. The wedding party took place on a meadow located outside the city walls of München, and since that time have been known as the “Theresienwiese,” or Therese’s meadow, as well as the “Wies’n-Feld,” or the meadow field. Everyone from München was invited, and at the conclusion of the celebration a horse race was held as festival event in honor of the entire kingdom of Bavaria.
The annual festival event arose out of the decision to hold a horse race on an annual basis. Other elements slowly were added to the event year by year. In 1811, the first agricultural exhibition was added to highlight the fall harvest in Bavaria. In 1818, the first carousel and two swings were set up and visitors could obtain beer from small booths that were set up for their enjoyment. Numbers of attendees gradually began to increase with time as well.
In 1896, the first large beer-halls were added, and were actually referred to as “Bierburgen,” or beer fortresses that were organized by enterprising restaurant owners together with the breweries. Other areas of the festival grounds were devoted to entertainment offerings for fest-goers. Also, various kinds of exhibitions were added by the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, Oktoberfest grew to become the world’s largest festival, attracting millions each year. Although originally held in early October, inclement weather caused the festival to be moved back to mid-September and then be celebrated for the latter two weeks of the month reaching up to October. The Oktoberfest celebration spawned its celebration elsewhere – at least 3,000 are held worldwide annually!
In 1971, the Germania Society, founded in 1964, celebrated the first Oktoberfest in the Greater Cincinnati area, and the custom soon spread. In 1976, the City of Cincinnati, at the suggestion of the German-American Citizens League, decided to sponsor the first citywide Oktoberfest known as Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, which is the second largest Oktoberfest next to that in Cincinnati’s Sister City of München. Annually, about six million people attend the Bavarian fest, and about a half million attend Cincinnati’s.
Soon thereafter, Covington, Kentucky followed suit, and usually attracts close to 200,00 people. In 2004, Newport launched its first Oktoberfest, so that the three major cities in the Greater Cincinnati area all offer the celebration. Several German-American societies (the Kolping, Liberty Home German Society, Danube Swabian Societies), of course, also sponsor Oktoberfest celebrations. The Oktoberfest season begins in late August with the first Oktoberfest, and then continues on into the first week of October, thereby acquiring for the Greater Cincinnati area the reputation as having the longest string of Oktoberfest celebrations anywhere in the U.S, or the world!
PLEASE? - BITTE?
Newcomers in Cincinnati are often dumbfounded when they hear “Please?” in response to a question, or a request. They could readily understand someone saying: I beg your pardon? Excuse me? What did you say? Or, simply: Huh? But to hear someone say, “Please?” carries with it a question not readily understood. Where does it come from, and why do people say “Please?” in Cincinnati?
The expression is a direct translation of the German word “Bitte?” and is one of the linguistic markers demonstrating the impact of German on the American English spoken in the area. It reflects the polite form of interpersonal communication in the German language, which is much more gracious than the common English-language expressions noted above. Moreover, its mere use serves as a convenient way of identifying locals from Ausländer. Not limited by any means, however, to those of German descent, the expression is widely used in the Greater Cincinnati area, as well as in other areas with a German heritage.
Drive up to a fast-food restaurant and order hamburger and fries, or place an order at a restaurant, and you will often hear in response to your order: “Please?” This is merely meant to confirm what has been ordered. When one hears that you know you have a Cincinnatian on the other end of the line!
ST. NICHOLAS DAY CELEBRATION
The celebration of St. Nicholas Day marks the beginning of the Christmas season for German-Americans. On the evening of December 5th, children hang up a stocking, set out a boot, or plate in the hopes that St. Nicholas will reward them with fruit, candy, and other gifts – this of course for having been good in the past year!
In Cincinnati, an annual celebration of St. Nicholas Day is held at the German Heritage Museum, maintained by the German-American Citizens League. Special entertainment often features the Fairview German Language School Children’s Choir performing traditional German Christmas songs, and St. Nicholas makes a special visit for children. Exhibits and refreshments are typical. The Museum is located at West Fork Park on West Fork Road in Green Township. For directions, see: www.gacl.org
click on the image above for a popular recipe
NEW YEAR'S DAY TRADITIONS
Pork & Sauerkraut are a main dish for New Years Day in the German heritage, as pigs are considered good luck charm symbols and cabbage leaves are symbolic of money, thus having pork and Sauerkraut are felt to be the best way to pave the way for the New Year. This goes back to the distant past when farm families who had a pig felt they were lucky enough to have one to feed their families during the winter. Pigs thus became good luck charms and were also used then for saving money in piggy banks. In German one says "ich habe Schwein gehabt," or I have had pig," which means colloquially that: I have had good luck!" Little pigs of cake or candy (marzipan - almond paste is popular) are also produced. The custom really demonstrates the ancient rural origins of this particular custom.
For New Year's Eve lentil, or split pea, soup, with Wienerwurst is also popular. Jelly-filled donuts, which are also popular for Fat Tuesday/Fastnacht, are also popular at New Year's. For those originating from northern Germany, herring might be a preferred good luck meal. For beverages on the Eve, champagne and Kirschwasser, or cherry brandy are popular, as are various wines. Another old custom is Bleigiessen, or lead pouring, which is done by melting a small piece of lead in a spoon and then pouring it into a bowl filled with water. One then tries to interpret the form it takes, and read into the future. For example, if it looks like a pretzel, you might become a baker, or if you see a sheep, you might become a shepherd, etc., and all kinds of amusing shapes and forms are seen and various interpretations are come up with. A popular wish for the New Year is to wish someone "einen guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr," which means to wish someone "a good slide into the New Year."
Whereas Christmas is a close-knit family event, New Year's Eve celebrations often bring friends and family together for festive parties. An old German-American custom is called "shooting in the New Year," which described going throughout your village and firing a few shots into the air by your friends' homes. By now the transition, however, has gone to shooting off fireworks (though not always), which goes back to the ancient custom of trying to scare off any evil spirits lurking about as one enters the New Year! This is especially done at Midnight as one enters the transitional zone of the first hour of the New Year.