Sunday, October 6, 2013

Happy German-American Day!

Germantown Seal
Today is officially German-American Day. I love this day because I have so many German ancestors, just as many other Americans do. One only needs to stop and consider the surnames of the people around them to see how many are German in origin. Even those that may not sound German have often been Anglicized from a German name. The day is used to observe and celebrate the date that the first significant group of Germans arrived in Philadelphia in 1683 and founded Germantown, 330 years ago today. Conveniently, it also usually coincides with Oktoberfest, often falling in it's final days or just after.

German heritage is so strong in America that myths have been created about it, such as the one that our official language was nearly German. This is false because for starters, America has no official language to begin with. What actually inspired this myth was when the U.S. Government considered making it a requirement that all government documents be translated into German. It didn't happen but if it had, it would have just meant that all government documents would be available in German as well as English, not that German would replace English. However, even the truth of the matter shows just how prominent the German language was in our culture.

Old Germantown, Philadelphia
When did this change? Mostly during World War I when there was a lot of anti-Germany sentiment in America. Germany were our enemies and speaking German was felt to be unpatriotic so there was a drastic decline in the language at this point. And if that wasn't enough, certainly the second world war put the nail in the coffin for the language. During this time, posters discouraging the use of languages like German and also Italian and Japanese were distributed. Only communities like the Amish and Mennonites retrained the language, further isolating them from the rest of society. For a long time after WWI and particularly WWII, we were unable to take much pride in our German heritage, even if our ancestors had come to the country well before the first world war, it was felt to be in bad taste to celebrate German culture or history at all. German-American Day had been informally observed up until WWI and it wasn't until 1983, on the 300 year anniversary of the first group of German's arrival in Pennsylvania, that it was revived by law as an official day of observance. Unfortunately, it's not enough to get a day off work/school though and even today, after 30 years as an official, national day of observance, it goes significantly overlooked. Though many cities across the U.S. host a Steuben Parade, it usually takes place in September, well before German-American Day.

German-American Day is significant to me not only because I have many German ancestors but because some of them were a part of the early Germantown community. My ancestor Jacob C. Gottschalk, arrived in Philadelphia in 1701 or 1702 and became a preacher in the Germantown Mennonite community alongside William Rittenhouse. After Rittenhouse's death, Jacob became the first Mennonite Bishop in America.

Why is German-American Day important to you? Should it receive more attention? Who were your German ancestors?

Eat a pretzel today, they're German!
Here's some good reasons to celebrate German-American Day:

  • The Christmas tree originated in Germany.
  • Food! Hot dogs (Frankfurters), hamburgers, bratwurst, sauerkraut, strudels, pretzels - all German influences. And foods like shoofly pie and funnel cake have their origins with the Pennsylvania "Dutch".
  • Beer! German-Americans played a large role in beer production in America.
  • Religion. Most Lutheran and Anabaptist churches in America were founded by Germans and let's not forget the leader of the Reformation was Martin Luther, a German.
  • Farming and craftsmanship. Palatines in particular were revered as the among the best farmers in the world and helped make Pennsylvania's agricultural history as important as it was.
  • Classical music. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc. It may not be your favorite style but they undoubtedly created iconic music that will last forever.
  • The public school system in America was heavily influenced by the German concept of free common schools.
  • Folklore and fairy tales. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc... Disney got them all from the Brother's Grimm, who had collected them from oral story telling in Germany.
  • The first anti-slavery protest was published in Germantown, PA in 1688, a mere 5 years after the area was founded, and some, if not all of the signees were German. Quakers and Mennonites of the area strongly opposed slavery and wasted no time making that clear to the world. Though the Quaker movement began in England, many German Mennonites had converted to the Quaker faith when William Penn and others preached their beliefs in the Rhine valley.
Have I missed anything obvious? Feel free to comment below.

Images thanks to Wikipedia.

No comments:

Post a Comment