Sunday, January 20, 2019

Another look at life within the Low German Mennonite community

Tina Fielding
Tina Fielding, Community Health Rep and Low-German interpreter with Alberta Health Services - With the Christmas holidays behind us, I am pondering the many different traditions and customs that took place around the world to celebrate Christmas. Growing up in the Low German Mennonite culture we often watched others, wondering why they did what they did around any holidays, and I know others watched us and wondered as well.

When my family moved to Canada in 1987 something as simple as a yard sale was the strangest thing ever, but now, years later, it’s the most normal thing ever. As we live in a community and assimilate into a culture, things become normal, but other things can get lost in the process.

This Christmas as you celebrated with family, did you wonder about some of the traditions and customs your family has? Do you know where they all originated from? How many of us have continued on with traditions without knowing the story of where it began or lost traditions that our families once cherished?

Some of our Christmas traditions growing up included having our gifts, unwrapped, in a large mixing bowl on a chair instead of under a tree. The gifts were usually something useful for when you got married and started your own family. For example, girls would get dishes, bakeware, or anything to do with the home and the boys would get tools or something for the trade they were expected to enter into.

These items would be safely put away for years until finally the day came when you got married and moved out, and often you were all set with everything you needed to begin a new life away from home. Other gifts that were constant every year were new hand sewn clothes, shoes, socks, hats, and any other clothing articles that were needed. The bottom of the bowl was usually filled with roasted peanuts, oranges, and other little treats. These were normal gifts for us growing up and we really appreciated them, but I can only imagine the look on my 10 year old sons face if that was to be his gift instead of the toys he’s grown accustomed to!

After more than 30 years in Canada and having incorporated the Canadian Christmas culture into our holiday’s means we now have a decorated tree with wrapped gifts under it, and my son hasn’t received a power tool for Christmas yet! As children in the LGM culture there is a lot of focus on growing up and becoming an adult and these essential home making items were collected with great pride. This doesn’t mean, however, that there were never toys for the younger children but the older we got, the fewer toys we’d receive.

Another huge part of Christmas or any holiday growing up in the LGM culture revolved around family gatherings. Generally around any holiday, there are three days of celebration with family. One day for dad’s side of the family, one day for mom’s side, and one day for immediate family. This could mean travelling a fair distance and involved lots of amazing home-cooked food and baking. The children learned poems or memorized religious scripts to then recite for the grandparents and the other adults after which they were rewarded with a bag full of candy and trinkets.

At these gatherings, adult children were often presented with fabric for making new clothes or tools for the family farm. Family was a huge deal growing up and with the larger family sizes, it was usually quite the event! One of the challenges that has cropped up over the years is the growing amount of children that don’t speak Low German and can’t communicate with the grandparents that speak little or no English. My own son can only count to 10, tell me his name, his age and that he’s hungry in Low German.

As families move to Canada, putting their children in public schools, the language is getting lost with the younger generation. Growing up, we were encouraged to speak English at home to our parents so that they would learn the language, and they would respond in Low German so we would retain that, but somewhere over the years we all switched to English.

Of my 11 adult siblings, only a handful can carry on a full conversation in Low German and none of us still carry on the same gift giving traditions, but family is still the center of our holidays. That being said, my extended family lives as far away as Paraguay and Ontario and most years it is only my immediate family at the dinner table.

We serve our now traditional Canadian Christmas dinner, potluck style, with the exception of the delicious homemade chicken noodle soup that my mom brings every year! Even the noodles are made from scratch! With so many new traditions, the lost language and the distance between families, this changes Christmas in a big way for many of our LGM families in Alberta but Christmas remains a season of faith and family! We hope you had a very festive holiday with your loved ones and wish you a very happy New Year!

1 comment:

  1. Tina,
    I appreciated your post very much. I too come from a Low German background and have lost almost all of it. I'm a part of a Multi-cultural Group in Pincher Creek and it is cultures such as yours that we seek to share with us at our once a month pot-luck meetings in Pincher. Would you at some point be willing to come share with us some of the LGM culture?
    Linden Willms


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