Where America pretends to be German
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery when it comes to Leavenworth.
This festive season, one of the seasonal movies doing good business across the pond is Ira Finkelstein’s Christmas, the story of a Jewish boy’s desperate attempts to enjoy a ‘proper’ Christmas, even if he has to give his family the slip to do so. I mention this, because the film’s location ‘Christmastown’ happens to be a town in Washington State called Leavenworth, which has made its career out of passing itself off as an ersatz Bavaria.
There’s an undeniably large German-origin population in the United States – you’ve only got to look in the phone book to see all the names – and many communities have German bakeries and celebrate Oktoberfest, but Leavenworth has gone a whole lot further, and really tried to recreate itself as a little slice of Germany. At this time of year that means, of course, a Christmas market (Christkindlmarkt), and a child’s lantern parade, plus lots of pretty decorations and plenty of US-style smiley hospitality.
Of course you don’t have to be here at Christmas time to have the Leavenworth experience: King Ludwig’s restaurant serves ‘pork hock’ (Schweinshaxe) and the Café Verona does strudel, German beer flows freely, there’s oompah bands, red cabbage and pretzels galore. The Munchen House and the Leavenworth Sausage Garten do good business, as does the Obertal Inn and the half-timbered Edelweiss Hotel. You can completely immerse yourself in things Bavarian.
In fact Leavenworth’s story is not really about German settlement at all, but a good case history of American gumption. Back in the 1960s it was a remote timber town, dying on its feet. In a desperate attempt ‘to turn their precarious situation around, the leaders of the community decided to change Leavenworth’s appearance, hoping to bring tourism into the area. Using the beautiful backdrop of the surrounding Alpine hills to their advantage, the townspeople agreed to remodel their hamlet into a Bavarian-style village’, according to the town’s website.
And besides the physical transformation, they started to organise a series of festivals, such as the Autumn Leaf Festival, Maifest and the extremely popular Christmas Lighting Ceremony. Eventually, all these initiatives paid off, and today more than a million tourists come to Leavenworth each year, with this year’s filming of Ira Finkelstein’s Christmas a final feather in their cap.
Alas, that movie hasn’t made it across the pond; the storyline is too American-specific, but then so is Leavenworth. We don’t need a recreation-destination when we can have the real thing, for a fraction of the price, just a short-haul flight away. As we say in the UK, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Leavenworth, and Ira Finkelstein, come as a welcome reminder that something we have on our doorstep is worth leaving home to see.
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