This is another installment of “The Children of Lake Wobegon,” based on fictional and non-fictional inspiration from the times and places I grew up in the land of 10,000 lakes.
If the Second World War hadn’t happened, I probably would have taken Spanish in High School.
My grandparents grew up speaking German during their childhood until it was no longer the lingua franca in the middle of the last century. But because my grandparent’s Deutsch was no longer teachable, it meant that I had to learn it for myself.
Sure, I knew that learning German instead of Spanish would mean I’d be spending my time studying something far different than what I’d ever need in my eventual career of teaching, but my family is German, and I’m German, so I’d be learning German.
Lake Wobegon is known for it’s Norwegian heritage, and there may be some in that region, but in a place where I could sneak beer at religious functions and was related by blood or marriage to people named Otto and Hildegard, the vaterland’s influence still remains, probably more strongly than anything from the real Vikings.
Now, Germany is known for it’s beer and it’s castles and the direct, cold way people can deal with you on first meeting. Of course, in Central Minnesota you do have beer, you don’t have castles, and if someone is direct and cold with you, well then they must have a stick up their butt after waking up on the wrong side of the bed.
What this region does have in common with der Heimat is first, the cuisine, and second, Christmas.
Neither Minnesota nor Germany is known for their cuisine, but what they serve, traditionally, is enough to keep you full for a hard day’s work and a good night’s sleep. Travel up the road to New Munich, and you will find some of the finest sausage in the Midwest. It’s got a little kick and goes excellently and customarily with sauerkraut and potatoes – fried, boiled, baked, mashed, au gratin (how foreign!), or french fries. So, when your grandmother sets this meal in front of you for the 1,000th time, you take it, eat it, and save your green smoothie for when you’re out of the zip code.
Christmas, while it may not be obvious, is another. In Germany, you could find in every tiny village and major city a Weihnachtsmarktfit complete with crafts, gluewein, cinnamon toasted almonds, and food and music for days. But what it all is, is a tradition held time and again in a manor of splendor, brilliance, and intimate warmth.
In Central Minnesota, you have this encapsulated not in month-long festivals but in the quieter celebrations in all the towns. Decorations as old as your great-aunt but as sparkly and sentimental as anything you’ll find in today’s big box stores, churches illuminated with candlelight and carols sung for generations, and families traveling through snow and frostbiting air to cozy up to a warm meal of sausage, sauerkraut, and at least one kind of potato, or – perhaps for Christmas – baked ham with sauerkraut, at least one kind of potato, and corn (exotic no longer to these 5th and 6th generation German-Americans).
Times are changing. Fermented vegetables, something not seen outside of Germany and/or Southeast Asia, are seriously a thing. Cold shoulders can be seen from the heart of the Twin Cities to their outer rings of suburbs. Christmas in America is becoming significantly less about faith and tradition and more about time off and staring at screens. But we all know our roots, don’t we? And in many places across this land, our roots look a whole lot like those a continent and ocean away.