Almost 23 years ago, President Reagan declared Tuesday, October 6, 1987, to be German-American Friendship Day. That happens to be my birthday – the very day I was born to a German mother and an American father. I’ve always joked that German-American friendship is my own personal story.
I grew up in Southern California, and my American roots are undeniable. But my German grandmother, who lives in northern Bavaria, has also been one of the most powerful influences in my life. She has, at times, acted more like a mother than a ’grandmother,’ raising me the only way she knew: as a German. Customs that I took for granted in my life were often later revealed to me as being wholly German in nature, and my understanding of German culture has been deepened profoundly by my relationship with her and other German family members. From the time I was three years old, I have spent every summer at her house and so have been able to establish firm roots to anchor myself as a German in this home away from home.
When I was growing up, countless German traditions, both big and small, worked their way into my childhood. Like the Weihnachtsplätzchen, the classic German Christmas cookies whose recipes have been passed down through my family for generations. For as long as I can remember, my uncle has sent us a tin of these homemade cookies every year at Christmastime. We generally devour them within hours, while opening our presents by the tree (on Christmas Eve, of course). By the time we get to them, they’re usually broken into pieces from the long haul over the Atlantic, but that doesn’t stop me and my brother from fighting over the last bits of our favorite ones. The recipes are so important to my uncle that he even spent time teaching me how to bake them during a visit to his house one summer. My cousins were more than a little bit confused at the smell of Christmas in July, but I assured them it was all for the sake of continuing tradition.
I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about these cookies, and about many other aspects of my heritage, when I decided to apply to the Miss German-America contest this spring. Miss German-America is the alternate name for the Queen of the German-American Steuben Parade of New York, one of the city’s largest and oldest ethnic heritage events. Originally a parade through Queens, it now takes place on 5th avenue at the end of every September, and is followed by a very lively Oktoberfest celebration in Central Park.
I applied for the title at the end of April, and on a Sunday in mid-may, I was competing for the crown among five other contestants in the second floor ballroom of the Liederkranz Club on the Upper East Side. It was a stressful morning, but somehow the day flew by. After a round of interviews with the judges and a series of questions in front of an audience of friends, family members, and committee members, I was selected to represent the parade as Miss German-America 2010. It was, to say the least, a very surreal moment.
Before winning, I knew that I felt very connected to both German and American culture, and that I’d be well suited to represent the parade at German festivals, at the parade banquet, and on a float in the parade itself. But because I grew up 3,000 miles away from New York, I had no idea how large and vibrant the German-American community out here really is. Since being crowned, I’ve discovered what seems like a separate German universe that I had no idea even existed.
Almost every weekend, I hop on the LIRR, the Metro North, or NJ Transit to meet the rest of my court (two Princesses, three Junior Princesses, and one very adorable Junior General) at whichever German festival is on tap that day. We greet visitors, invite them to the parade, and ask for donations in exchange for small blue cornflowers that we encourage everyone to pin to their hats or shirts. I enjoy German beer, sauerkraut, sausages, leberkäse, pflaumenkuchen, and more while chatting with members of the community.
Over the past few months, I’ve gotten to know many members of the German-American community – some young, some old; some third-generation, and some not even naturalized yet. I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality that I’ve been greeted with, and I’m truly thankful for this opportunity to represent the German-American community at the Steuben Day Parade in September. I can’t wait to celebrate an early birthday, and German-American friendship day, among such a lovely crowd!
Stephanie Russell-Kraft is Miss German-America 2010 and will be the Queen of the upcoming 53rd Annual German-American Steuben Parade in New York City, which will be held on Saturday, September 25 at noon on Fifth Avenue. For more information about the parade and the events of German-American Friendship Month, visit www.germanparadenyc.org