Embracing Traditions

Have you ever watched the show, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding? I’m home from work right now. My daughter doesn’t feel well and didn’t go to school, so I’ve been watching it all day. Our streaming service keeps challenging me by asking, “Are you still watching?”

The show is over-the-top dramatic making me wonder if that’s really how American Gypsies live. I am not familiar with their culture, but if you are, I would love to hear from you. What is it like? I’m so curious.

One thing that I think is very interesting about the show is the lengths the American Gypsies go to to preserve their centuries-old traditions. I am just so fascinated by it.

This makes me think about my own family and culture. My family has been here long enough to be very assimilated into American culture, but that wasn’t always the case for older generations.

Like many Americans, I’m a bit of a mutt – mostly German with some Czech and Dutch thrown in. My husband is also mostly German with a little bit of English and Scottish. I think that makes my daughter a surprising amount of German for a family that has been here for so long.

My grandma was a first-generation American. Her parents had immigrated from Czechoslovakia after the First World War. I don’t know all the details because it was so long ago, but I know assimilating into American culture at that particular time must have been very difficult. Old traditions were even a little embarrassing for my grandma as a child.

Fast forward to my childhood, I grew up in a rural area where most people were of German heritage. Some of the older generation still spoke a little German. There were even a few church services in German.

Polka was popular where I grew up. Our local radio station played polka and at an annual Summerfest, polka music rang out late into the night. We (the younger generation) all made fun of it of course, but now I really regret that.

My grandma and grandpa were an adorable couple and they were so cute and sweet to each other when they danced to polka music together.

However, I feel those traditions died along with all of our grandparents. I never learned to polka, but now I kinda wish I did.

Would it be too late to teach my daughter how to polka when I never learned myself?


I would love to hear about your family. Have your traditions fizzled out or are they still alive and well?


  1. JM says

    My family has had more success trying to build new traditions then following ones from Europe. At one time Easter was big family event but over a couple of generations holding a big get together just to go to church didn’t hold up. It was eventually effectively replaced with a family get together over the 4th of July.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    I’ve never seen the show. I’ve never seen the British original from which it spun off. I’ve always been baffled at the title – to my (overly-woke?) sensibility it always sounded offensive on its face, as though it was something dug out of the archives from some godawful massively racist past, rather than a product of the 2010s. You wouldn’t put on a show about Black people’s weddings called “My Massive-Ass Ugly N-word Wedding” – so how is this acceptable? It just seems bizarre.

    And indeed when I’ve googled the show, it has indeed faced controversy over racist advertising.

    Then again, we live in a world where “Naked Attraction” is a real show, so what do I know?

  3. Katydid says

    The show’s name is a play on the huge movie hit from 2002: My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It was a worldwide major hit and spun off a tv show, which then spun off this movie, that wanted to borrow some viewers who enjoyed the original movie.

    I’m not a fan of reality shows, so I wouldn’t watch.

    As for traditions, I’m second-generation American–all four of my grandparents came to the USA with their families as children/young adults, and all of them were different northern-European/Scandinavian nationalities. In both sides of the family, the mother’s “mother tongue” was spoken at home, but my parents grew up in the 1940s – 1950s and the culture was overwhelmingly over-conformist American. By my generation, we were raised in our mother’s language at home with an understanding but not fluency in our father’s language–I can speak to his side of the family about what’s for lunch or the general goings-on of the day, but not anything technical. Having said that, what came down from all the non-American grandparents to my generation are superstitions and sayings, but not dress or culture.

    I married someone who’s umpteen-generation American and there really doesn’t seem to be any leftovers from The Auld Countree on his side. And our kids? Know a few words and phrases from my side, but the original generation that came over is all gone and the next generation was brainwashed into typical American culture of the 1950s.

  4. EigenSprocketUK says

    In the UK, a self-describing initialism is “GRT” people. Meaning Gypsy / Romany / Traveller (or presumably any combination). This seems respectful.

  5. Katydid says

    In the USA, a lot of people in this ethnic group self-describe as Gypsy. It’s perfectly respectful to use the name they use, to describe them.

  6. lanir says

    Half of my family came from Germany after WWII. My dad, his siblings and that whole generation of that side of the family are immigrants.

    My paternal grandmother and her siblings and in-laws kept the family together while they were around. We used to have big gatherings. I think it’s become a yearly gathering where they rent out a place and have dinner and everyone catches up.

    They used to play music and some people danced afterward, not sure if they still do. I still remember they used to play the chicken polka song and a lot of people would dance to it. That’s sort of like the hokey-pokey here, a specific song with a specific dance that nobody takes too seriously. I would recommend starting with the chicken polka actually, it’s easy for people of all ages to do and silly enough to stand out and make memories. It’s simple enough you can learn it from a short youtube video.

    I had some really bad problems with my dad that drove me away from family. Traditions and this sort of family values stuff really are wonderful when they work. Our society is very quick to talk about that but it never seems to notice when things go badly. If you see someone pulling away from things like this try to keep an eye out and an open mind. In my family they never bothered to ask why I was pulling away and just blamed me for ruining this stuff for other people. It would have really changed my life for the better if someone had noticed and believed in me. I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in that. Maybe one of you can do that for someone else.

  7. says

    Would it be too late to teach my daughter how to polka when I never learned myself?

    I have some friends who invented their own family traditions. For one, was the re-use of christmas wrapping paper until it was falling apart. For another, it was the re-gifting of a particularly horrible sweater that was hidden more and more elaborately every year. I also know a fellow whose idea of tradition is to sometimes re-enact the “we … dance” scene from Zorba, the Greek. In my family it was a tradition that each month the kids would make dinner. We also made a trip to a certain vineyard every year, bought a big tank of wine, and re-bottled it – I was the person responsible for the melted wax dunk once the cork was in, and I got very good at it. These silly-seeming not-really-traditions became precious childhood memories. I know another family where they all dance tango, with varying degrees of sincerity, sarcasm, and hip-hop fusion. I remember one time when they all went at it, and everyone around was completely gobsmacked. Then there’s my friend Ron, whose 3 daughters and wife and he make up a Call of Duty strike team – they practice together, do room entry drills, etc. “That sniper that just blew your head off is a 9 year old girl.” [I am less approving of Call of Duty than tango, fwiw]
    Oh yeah, and then there was my middle school friend Scott, whose dad was a dentist and owned a vintage land rover. Every so often he would declare “AN EXPEDITION” and we’d all grab walking staffs, aussie bush hats, pith helmets, satchels and other expedition gear and load up in the rover for a trip (about 2 miles) to the ice cream place. Often the rover wouldn’t make it and there would be a pack of kids pushing a land rover down Roland Avenue. Again, memorable.

  8. says

    Oh, yeah, I knew another couple that did “threat displays” or “mating dances” like some kind of lizards or birds, to express something, sometimes. Everyone in the family accepted it as completely normal behavior.

  9. SailorStar says

    Hey, Lanir; google “scapegoat” and/or “truth-teller”/”truth teller”. You will find there are so very many people in your same boat. Additionally; dysfunctional families scapegoat the strongest and sanest member. Take pride in that.

  10. says

    It seems Polka was polular all over Europe in the 19th century, although it seems to have originated in Bohemia. So it might be more of a hype than a tradition. Traditions are often very local. For example here in the Netherlands (and I’d expect elsewhere in Europe) the traditional dress would be different from village to village. But these days very few people wear it, except maybe on special occasions.

    Also, European history is complicated.

    Czechoslovakia didn’t exist before the end of WWI. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Habsburg empire before that. So the question “where were your great-grandparents from” does not necessarily have a simple answer. Especially since basically every country in central europe has ethnic minorities from neighbouring countries. What is now Czechia has significant minorities of Moravians, Slovaks and Ukrainians for example.

    Germany wasn’t a united country before 1872. So for example traditions and local dress could be very different between say Bavaria, Hessen, Saxony and Hannover to name a few German states. As a reasonably frequent visitor of Germany I would say that for example local dialects and customs are still a thing in Germany, even though you might not see that at first glance.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    @mjr – Scott’s dad could surely, on a dentist’s salary, have afforded a brand new Land Rover… then it would have broken down on the way BACK from the ice cream shop.

  12. brightmoon says

    I’m surprised as a Black child growing up in NYC in the 50s and 60s I learned how to polka . It was fun but I love to dance anyway. I also enjoyed matzos and I’m not Jewish . Real African dance ( this was a time when Tarzan movies were the only knowledge most kids had about Africa! ) I was lucky that I had such open minded teachers in elementary school . I learned very early to appreciate other cultures.
    Some traditions I didn’t like but for some reason hearing songs in other languages like La Bamba ( Spanish) and Sukiyaki ( Japanese ) gave me hope that racism would be soon a thing of the past . How naive was I . Even my mother hated the song Sukiyaki because she’d lived through WWII and 20 years later there was still that resentment.

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