2014 Christmas Market Tour Nr. 2: Amana Colonies, Iowa

Old Mill Race, located across from the Mill Race Brewery in Middle Amana, Photos taken in December, 2014

After a long and relaxing three weeks of Christmas vacation, followed by a rude greeting of the flu upon arrival back in Germany and finally, finishing some work regarding sorting out thousands of photos taken and finishing some business with the Ammann Awards for the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, we will return to the Christmas market tour for 2014. As mentioned in the tour of Jena, the Files was going a different route with regards to the Christmas market tour, tying together travel with regional culture and family. Our tour continues on to the United States and the Christmas markets that not only exist, but have increased in numbers in the past three years. While Christmas markets have established their foundations in cities, like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New York, other cities, like Austin (Texas), Philadelphia and even Minneapolis have recently introduced their version of the Christmas (or even holiday) market, catching on with the German trend. Even some of the smaller towns, like Kiel, Wisconsin  and villages in Indiana have looked up to Germany and its five-plus centuries of tradition which has presented a holiday appeal.

But it is not necessary to copy the plans of a Christmas market by having the huts clustered in a market square and each one offering candies and crafts that can be found in Europe. Some of the Christmas markets seen so far on tour offer commercialized items and little local goods, thus making them not so appealing for the tourist but more of a gathering place to eat and drink mulled wine (Glühwein). As in the case of our next candidate, the Amana Colonies in eastern Iowa, one can mix Christmas with their own customs and traditions, and the community can stand out among the rest at Christmas time. For the Colonies, the Christmas tradition is spread out among not only one, but seven communities.

Consisting of High Amana, Middle Amana, Homestead, Lower Amana, South Amana, East Amana and Main Amana, the villages were established in 1854 by the German Pietists, a local Lutheran group group formed 300 years ago in the German state of Hesse that stressed the importance of religious freedom and creativity. Persecuted in their homeland, the  settlers of the Community of True Inspiration, as it was first coined, immigrated to the United States, where they first settled in West Seneca (near Buffalo) before resettling in the rich fertile lands along the Iowa River, 25 miles (45 km) west of presnet day Iowa City. There, they lived a communal life for over 80 years, where self-sufficiency and isolation on the one hand and religious freedom to practice their own beliefs on the other hand were practiced. The communal cluster discontinued its function in 1934, in response to the Great Depression, and created a for-profit organization named Amana Society. The Amana Corproation was established at the same time, which created electrical appliances, including refrigerators and air conditioners. That company, located in Middle Amana, is now owned by Whirlpool.

When visiting Amana Colonies, one can see traces of self-sufficiency at its best, as many local eateries and beverage companies have their own products people can try year round. The majority of them can be found in Main Amana, like the Ackermann Winery, which produces one of the best wines in the state of Iowa (such as the dandelion-flavored- highly recommended), and the Mill Stream Brewery, which produces one of the best micro-brews in Iowa (such as the chocolate-flavored, dark ale, and the pilsner). Many shops offer homegrown fudge bars and coffee with different flavors one will not see even here in Germany. The Ronneburg Restaurant offers the best German entrées for visitors to try in an environment similar to a typical Gastätte in western Germany. There is also the Amana Woolen Mill, where after 160 years,  clothing is still being produced even today, using homegrown wool. Then there are many arts and crafts shops, each one having their own theme. Highly recommended is the  Good Quilt, where handmade quilts and lawn ornaments made of steel can be seen even in the front yard.

While many towns in the US have their holiday events centered on Christmas lights and concerts, the Amana Colonies focuses their holiday tradition on their cultural heritage. After all, self-sufficiency sometimes has its rewards when after many generations, the people still continue produce local hand-made goods and practice some of their holiday traditions brought over from Germany. The main holiday event takes place during the time of St. Nicholas Day (the first weekend of December), named Prelude to Christmas. There, thousands of visitors have an opportunity to see the displays of goods locally produced, while at the same time, meet new people while embracing the events, such as the Amana Cookie Walk, caroling throughout the area, storytelling and singing at the Heritage Museum, watching a theatrical or madrigal at the Old Creamery Theater, and lastly, meeting Santa and his reindeer (yes- live reindeer).  A video on the event below shows you an overview of the event:

But apart from finding the best local goods, as we did during our stay, or even seeing the villages lit up at night during the holidays, it would be a sin if one does NOT visit the Tannenbaum Forest. Located at the Festhalle Barn next to the Visitor’s Information Center in Amana, the Tannenbaum Forest showcases a wide display of Christmas trees, each one donated by a private business or organization in the Colonies and each one displays a different theme. Expect to spend at half hour to an hour in awe, looking at trees with themes, such as the pink flamingo, or from the films, like Frozen and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (the latter celebrated its 50th anniversary this Christmas), as well as ones traditional of their heritage both here as well as in Germany. Beware that you see everything inside, even the Christmas Pyramid, a German household for Christmas where lit candles allows for the blades of a fan to move and figures to move around like a merry-go-round. You’ll find this as you are finished looking at the display of trees and make your exit for the nearest cafe for fudge-flavored coffee or apple cider. 🙂  The Tannenbaum Forest lasts from Thanksgiving until shortly before Christmas. If one misses the Prelude to Christmas, one should see this main showcase for Christmas as you stay for a few days to embrace the culture the Colonies have to offer.

Overall, in comparison to the Christmas markets seen so far, the Amana Colonies remains to this day as the jewel to be discovered. While many cities and villages showcase their display of lights and holiday events attracting thousands of locals and other communities have their set of Christmas tents in the market square to attract many people, the Christmas venture (as I call it because it is not really a market in German standards), with its row of small shops selling local goods and its main attraction with the Tannenbaum Forest, attracts a fair share of tourists, both during the Prelude festival as well as during the holiday season, but it is for the most part, rather quiet and peaceful, with streets lined with wooden and brick houses dating back to the 1800s all decorated with Christmas lights and other decorations typical of Christmas time for them. It allows for people to visit the places without having to fight through the crowds or trample on items belonging to the shops, as seen at many Christmas markets. When walking along the streets at night, you do not have to worry about people picking fights or stalking, which makes seeing the houses on display a more enjoyable experience. The Amana Colonies, especially at Christmas time, presents a warm feeling of home and family, where you can chat with locals over coffee and fudge bars and have a great time. The Colonies seem to be one of those places resembling the black home- you visit the place once, you are bound to do it again, many times until you finally decide to move there. This was the feeling we had during our visit. If it is like that for you, when visiting the Amana Colonies (or any community you visit), then look at it and take advantage of it.  If anything, if it does not work, visiting Amana Colonies, especially before Christmas, will provide you with a prelude to the holiday season where the feeling of home will stick with you- right up until you can share the experience with your family. This was our experience, at least.

 

Fast Facts: The Amana Colonies celebrated the Year of the Four this past year. The religious movement that later resulted in the establishment of the Colonies was formed 300 years ago by Eberhard L. Gruber and Johann F. Rock. Middle Amana was built 160 years ago. Amana Corporation was formed 80 years ago, as with the Amana Society as a for-profit organization. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Colonies’ enlistment on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

To learn more about the history of the Amana Colonies, click here for details. Information on other events at the Colonies can be found on their main website, which you can click here for more details. There, you can find out the best deals for lodging and food. Have enough cash with you as it can be expensive.

The author has a collection of photos of Christmas at the Amana Colonies, which can be found on the Flensburg Files’ facebook page. Type it in or click here for more photos.

Our next stop on the tour takes us to a pair of Dutch clusters in Iowa. One of them has a very well-esteemed reputation, while the other has ghosts. In either case, lat’s have a look at them, shall we? 🙂