Posts Tagged ‘German immigrants’

German – almost America’s official language?

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

German almost became America’s official language. But the bill was defeated by a single vote in 1776.

True or False?

The notion sounds plausible enough. After all, English was the language of the hated Colonialists, against whom the American people rebelled. Why shouldn’t the fledgling young nation vote for a language, other than English, to further distance itself from the Colonialists? With over 50 million Americans claiming German ancestry, Americans of German decent represent the largest single ethnic group in the United States. They include such diverse personalities as John D. Rockefeller, Babe Ruth, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, Wernher von Braun, Adolphus Busch, Meryl Streep and Donald Trump. But, the plain truth is that the 1776 vote for an official language never took place.

The “By one Vote” myth

The “By one Vote” story is another urban myth. According to the legend the Pennsylvania state parliament took a vote sometime in the 1790s on whether German should become America’s official language. The Speaker of the House, a German-American by the name of Frederick A. Muhlenberg, cast the decisive vote for English and against German.

The true story

In reality, the 1776 vote never took place. However, it is true that German immigrants from Virginia petitioned Congress in 1794 to have certain US laws printed in German as well as in English. German translations were meant to help immigrants who had not yet learned English to acclimate faster in their new homeland. Congress denied the petition by a vote of 42 to 41. The German-born, bilingual Speaker of the House, Frederick Augustus Conrad Muehlenberg, abstained from the vote, but declared afterwards, “The faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.”

Even without German having become the official language of the US, many German words have made their way into our American vocabulary. How about angst, autobahn, kindergarten, coffee-klatsch, dummkopf, Diesel, edelweiss, gemuetlich, Gesundheit, hamburger, kaputt, muesli, and zigzag, just to name a few?


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Christmas Tree tradition is German

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Did you know that our Christmas tree tradition is German? The pagan custom dates back to the days before Christianity. As early as in the 16th century, people in Germany are said to have brought decorated trees into their homes. The Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, is credited with having added lighted candles. German immigrants eventually brought their tradition to the U.S. where the first recorded Christmas tree was displayed in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. But because of its pagan origin, most Americans did not adopt the tradition until the 20th century.

Beginning of the Tradition in Europe

Long before Christianity, plants and trees that stayed green all year had special meaning Europeans. People believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick. When plants greened again in spring and summer, they thought the sun god had recovered. To keep him healthy though out the year, people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. Others built pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens.

Puritans rally against the Christmas tree

New England’s Puritans tried hard to eradicate the old pagan tradition of decorating trees. Throughout the 18th century, they forbade any Christmas tradition that wasn’t a church service. But by the 19th century, the influx of German and Irish immigrants had weakened their efforts.

The Christmas Tree during Queen Victoria

In 1846, Queen Victoria of England, her German Prince, Albert, and their family were sketched in a London journal standing around a Christmas tree. Since the queen was immensely popular, Britain’s subjects as well as America’s East Coast Society imitated the custom.

The Christmas Tree Tradition came from Germany

Our Christmas Tree Tradition came from Germany


The American Christmas Tree Tradition

In the early 20th century, German-Americans continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies to decorate their trees. Americans used homemade ornaments. Soon popcorn, interlaced with berries and nuts, became fashionable. And after then arrival of electricity, lit Christmas trees appeared in town squares across the country. Today, the German Christmas Tree tradition has become an American tradition as well.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.