For my American friends I should begin with a little education on what “Mennonite” means. You are probably picturing Amish farmers and women in head covering driving around in buggies, right? This is sometimes accurate. In Manitoba and other places however, it could mean a faith or a heritage. Similar to saying you’re Jewish could mean your faith or heritage.
If you are marrying a Mennonite-heritage man like I did, here’s a crash course on what you need to know.
1. Low German. A language (like a European- Creole) of German, Dutch, Russian, and whatever else happens to be thrown in there mixed with made up words that don’t belong to any language. It’s impossible for an outsider to learn.
* Tip: In any circumstance just nod your head and respond with “Nayo”. That is the only word you’ll ever need. I have no idea if that’s how it’s spelled or what it means but it seems to work.
2. Mennonite Food. Usually consists of a mix of heavy cream, salt, sugar and grease. Not necessarily in that order. You must understand nothing you make will be as good as his “Oma’s” (Grandma’s). Even if you used the same recipe and same ingredients, it won’t compare. Reasons I have been given include but are not limited to,
“Oma grew her own <cabbage/potatoes/snap peas/rainbows and sunshine > in the garden.”
“The milk came from a cow in the backyard and THIS(wrinkled nose) is from Smiths.”
“It’s because Oma had a special <pan/spoon/bowl/magic wand> that was smuggled in her purse from Russia when running from the Soviets.”
“Oma’s special”. – I take personal offense to that last one.
* Tip: Oma’s written recipes (in the unlikely event she has any written down) create a special headache. In place of measurements you’ll be provided with excellent describing words such as “Some” or “a bit” or “lots”. Also, since English is most likely her second language the recipes will be in one long paragraph without ANY punctuation. In my experience there will be a short story or two randomly mixed into the recipe which adds to the confusion.
* Tip # 2: Just eat it. Food allergies and diets are not met with sympathy. Avoid saying things like “This cream gravy is too fatty” “I’m on a diet” or “I’m allergic to ____”. These are attributed to weakness. Skinny girls with allergies (I’ll just say it because I am…Irish) would never have survived harsh Russian/Canadian winters.
3. Family is sacred. These gatherings are huge. There will be many relatives and your husband won’t know how he’s related to half of them. He’ll refer to everyone (except Oma and Opa) as his “cousin”. Whether or not they are his cousins are up for debate.
* Tip: Sometimes the family will tell stories. They’ll start in English but as the story teller gets excited, they’ll inevitably end in Low German. You’ll know it’s over when everyone laughs. Smile, nod and say, “Nayo.”
* Tip # 2: Every Mennonite family has a relative who’s still convinced the Commies are coming to get him. The way to deal with this relative is to smile, nod and say, “Nayo.”
* Tip # 3: When planning a small gathering make sure you clarify SMALL. In Mennonite terms it could mean 200 of his closest relatives. Seriously.
*Tip #4: If you need to know how he’s related to someone specifically, always ask Oma.
4. Oma is sacred.
5. Mennonite Game. If ever in Mennonite country (Manitoba, Saskatchewan…a flat frozen farm…) it’s polite to ask new acquaintances what their last names are and try to find how you’re related to them. This is commonly referred to as the Mennonite game.
* Tip: Study his relative’s names along with their occupation and town. I’ve calculated 5 last names for every 5000 Mennonites but I’m no mathematician. My husband Jon and his cousin Jon have the same name. True story. Knowing their occupation (Pastor, Farmer, Truck Driver or Teacher) and their town (Steinbach, Niverville, Mitchell, Kleefeld etc) helps narrow down those with the exact same names. Example: “Is your Uncle, Farmer Abram X from Steinbach or Pastor Abram X from Grunthal?”
(I apologize to any pastor or farmer Abrams from Steinbach and Grunthal).
6. Music. Everyone sings and plays some kind of instrument. They are infinitely better than you and all of your non-Mennonite friends. I’m convinced it’s something to do with their mutated genetics. Mutations resulting from surviving in subzero temperatures on borscht for centuries. They sing at the family gatherings, they sing their prayers, they sing for everything. Face the music – you are marrying the Sasquatch version of the Von Trapps. If you don’t sing or play anything, it’s time to learn something. FAST.
* Tip: If you’re not musically gifted and my theory is sound, eat borscht and pray for talent.
Take a deep breath and realize your family is equally as crazy. There are just a lot less of them. Congrats! You are so blessed to be marrying into a huge, loving, musical, close, beautiful and crazy sasquatch-family!