By Theresa Cernoch Parker
Featured in the November 2017 issue of Texas Polka News
Twice a year, the Tomball Sister City Organization celebrates the town’s German heritage with a Texas-size festival – German Heritage Festival at the end of March and German Christmas Market
at the beginning of December. The organization has found the right formula for a successful festival – authentic German and Texas entertainment, food, and beer; vendors with unique offerings; carnival and kids’ activities, plus free admission and no hassle-parking with free shuttle service.
All of these aspects are listed in reviews on the Tomball German Festivals Facebook page, which has 30,000 followers. But so is this – the friendliness of the volunteers, vendors, and entertainers. It comes across that they are having just as much fun as they want you to have. “Loved it! Food is amazing, the staff down to shuttle drivers, all amazing!” said one post. “It's worth all the festivities, music, food, drink and many merchants that sell there! It's a reflection of the city of Tomball and the quality of life there!” said another.
“It has never been about making money,” said Grady Martin, President of the Sister City Organization. “Our goal has always been to celebrate our German and Texas heritage, while promoting our little corner of the world – Tomball, Texas.”
The Tomball German Christmas Market has been listed as one of the best Christmas markets in Texas and the U.S. by travelmag.com, texasbucketlist.com, and the U.S. German Embassy. Grady
also recently did an interview with People magazine, so watch for that story.
You’ll soon have the chance to experience all this warm Gemütlichkeit German-Texan hospitality at the 10th Annual German Christmas Market on Dec. 8-10.
SQUEEZEBOX WILL HEADLINE
To celebrate the event’s 10th anniversary, the Sister City Organization is proud to announce the Squeezebox Band from Ohio will headline all three days. The band features America’s Polka Sweetheart Mollie B, Accordionist and Music Producer Ted Lange, and Drummer Dana Lindblad.
Mollie B loves Texas! “Any chance I get to perform in Texas, I am a happy girl,” Mollie said. “Not to mention, I love Christmas. I also enjoy playing in new locations, and I have never been to
Tomball. Folks have gotten to know (and love) Dana for he has done three Texas winter tours with us, and was part of the Mollie B Polka Party team at the 2016 taping in Texas,” Mollie said. “And Ted, well, I think everyone knows him and his incredible skills on accordion. He also enjoys playing for the good folks in Texas. We’re looking forward to adding another Texas experience to our list.”
Fans will have a chance to meet and greet the band each day with exact times yet to be determined. Of course, music can be heard throughout the festival all weekend long on four music stages, featuring Chris Rybak on his own party stage, Auf Geht’s, Eurofest, Das Ist Lustig,
TubaMeisters, Mike Stroup Trio, Tyrolean Folk Brass Band, and the Armstrong Family Bluegrass Band. You also can’t help but get into the festive spirit with the sounds of strolling carolers
Enjoy folk dancing by the Rathkamp German Folk Dancers, Keine Kunst German Folk Dance Troupe, high school German clubs, and local clogging groups. Sinterklaas (the original Dutch Santa) and Kristkind (German folklore “angel” who delivers presents to children) will be strolling the marketplace, along with Ghillie the Elf, dancing Christmas tree, and Santa Claus himself. These characters welcome free photo requests, so bring your camera.
An estimated 200 unique and interesting street vendors will line Market and S. Walnut Streets, selling German Christmas items, arts and crafts, and much more. Visit the Weihnachtshaus
inside the Community Center at 221 Market Street at the corner of Cherry Street, which will be filled with German clothes, Christmas decorations, and souvenirs for sale. Accordionists Kenny
James, Rebecca Huck, and Joe Brikha will keep you in the Christmas mood.
Three German tents with music stages will house biergartens decorated with German themes and Christmas lights. Tables and chairs will allow you to relax with your dunkles bier (dark beer),
or a warm cup of glühwein (mulled wine).
Kinderfest (kid’s area) will provide entertainment and fun for the young visitors. It includes carnival rides, bungee jump, rock wall, petting zoo, pony ride, walk on water, and more.
Food vendors will include traditional German food and drink, glühwein, beer, Christmas stolen (fruit bread) and other homemade breads, kaffee und kuchen (coffee and pastry), bratwurst,
red cabbage, schnitzel, and apple strudel (one Facebook post declared the strudel “godly”). The menu also features festival foods like funnel cake, corn dogs, hot dogs, hamburgers, kettle corn, and barbecue.
EUROPEAN TEXAS VIBE
In Europe, the Christmas markets are open for the month-long holiday season. “They are the place to go after work, during lunch, or to gather with friends to celebrate Christmas before the big holiday,” explained Valina, who has been on the Tomball festival scene almost since the beginning, performing in her parents’ Dutch dance troupe when the first spring festival was held 18 years ago.
She has gone on to become an emcee and entertainment director for the festival, and performs with her husband, Ross, as Das Ist Lustig. Oh, and she’s also the dancing Christmas tree.
“I like how the Tomball German Christmas Market has become a place where families and friends can gather together and celebrate the Christmas season, just like they do in Germany! You get some shopping done, you dance to the music; you taste the glühwein. Sometimes you see people exchanging gifts with each other,” she said.
The streets of old downtown Tomball are transformed into a winter wonderland (sometimes with actual cool weather). Even when it rains, the crowds gather. Another Facebook review: “This was the third or fourth time I've gone and I had a wonderful time! Great food, shopping and music. I went on Sunday and luckily brought my umbrella; the rain was only off and on and not constant. People didn't leave, instead they were content to stay and have a good time. That, to me, is
the sign of a good festival! Thank you, Tomball German Festival for another good time! Prost!”
The vendors offer unique locally made crafts and gifts to buy, as well as traditional German Christmas hand-carved decorations. The Texas Slavic & German Warehouse, along with its sister
company, Oktoberfest Depot, has been a vendor for the past seven years. Tessy Crawford and Billie Stripling welcome you to the TSG tent, which now has a permanent placement under the big oak trees across from the community center and within earshot of the Chris Rybak Party Stage.
“I personally love all of the PEOPLE! Everyone is there to have fun and SHOP!” Tessy said. “I love the festive Christmas atmosphere and the cooler weather,” Billie added.
Last year was Dream Dachshund Rescue’s sixth time to be a part of the event. “We have so much fun meeting everyone and showing off our beautiful German Dachshunds looking for homes,”
said Diana Turner.
To add to the festive atmosphere, the Sister City Organization offers prizes to vendors for Best Decorated Booths. Last year, Wicked Whatnots of Texas out of Round Rock took first place and the $300 prize for its décor, complete with co-owner Austin O’Burke as The Grinch.
MUSIK FILLS THE AIR
Local children's choirs and church groups entertain with Christmas music. Some of the bands play traditional Christmas music of Germany and Austria, while others cover the seasonal party songs.
“With the food, arts, crafts, and music, it's a great mix of German tradition and Texas fun,” Valina said. Entertainers like Chris and Edita Rybak bring the Texas fun. Grady laughed remembering Chris’ first appearance at the festival. “We didn’t have much room back then, so Chris had
to share a stage with an Andean flute player. He never complained and, he and Edita, along with Valina and Ross, have become part of our festival family,” Grady said.
Chris has developed quite a following at the festivals. "We used to always party until security came to shut it down,” Chris said. “And then we would do one more song of God Bless America and of course made it into a never-ending polka medley. The crowd always went wild and we were the last stage going. So Grady thought it was appropriate to name our stage the Chris Rybak Party Stage!"
"We play at many, many festivals through the year, but no one treats you better than Tomball,” said Edita. “Whether you are a musician, vendor, or just a German patron for the day who just happens to be wearing the new lederhosen or dirndl that you bought at the Kuckuck's Nest five minutes before, Tomball always treats everyone as a friend and part of the family. It doesn't get much better than this!"
Accordionist Gene Hackemack has been a strolling entertainer at the Christmas Market since 2011. “I love my ‘job’ of strolling through the Christmas Market for several reasons – meeting such
a variety of happy people at this joyous time of the year is one,” Gene sad. “Also, it’s fun to see the little kiddos break into impromptu dances in the street; needless to say the Chicken Dance tops the list for them. And LAST-but-not-LEAST, there are the dozens and dozens of college girls
trying to squeeze in tight for a group photo with me and my squeezebox!”
Accordionist Kenny James is not affected by the weather as he performs in the Weihnachtshaus located inside the community center. “Tomball’s country setting and relaxed atmosphere make this one of my favorite festivals to attend. The revelers are appreciative and fun to play for,” said Kenny, whose relationship with the spring and winter festivals goes back more than 13 years.
Grady said the Sister City Organization is always looking for ways to enhance the German-Texan experience at the festivals. That was the thinking behind bringing in nationally known, Grammy-nominated Alex Meixner to the spring event each year, which polkabeat.com is proud to sponsor.
“We’ve come a long way since that first year of the spring festival held on one flatbed trailer with Alpenfest playing and no beer served,” said Grady noting the conservative Tomball philosophy
at the time. With the leadership of Tomall Mayor Gretchen Fagan, the city has embraced what the Sister City Organization works to accomplish.
“We want the festivals to make Tomball a destination,” Grady said. “The events fill up the hotels and people enjoy our antique shopping and world-class restaurants.” Now, thousands attend both festivals, and between 200 and 300 kegs of beer are tapped at the Christmas market alone.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says there’s no such thing as fun for the whole family, but he hasn’t been to the Tomball German festivals. “We have a 3 year old and a 20 year old and the festival had something for us all,” said a Facebook review. “We had a great time and the weather was
perfect for hot chocolate! Taking pictures with the Celtic and traditional Santa was fun. But my favorite part was the many, many vendors especially the ones with the food! Everyone was super friendly. We're defiantly making it a family tradition to go every year!”
And as Grady is fond of saying, you don’t have to be German to attend!
WHO IS THIS SISTER CITY?
The Tomball Sister City Organization is a nonprofit corporation formed for the purpose of the establishment, sponsorship, promotion and support of cultural, business, educational, diplomatic, and other exchanges with Tomball’s sister city – Telgte, Germany.
Formally established in 2000, the sister-city relationship between Tomball and Telgte goes back to 1996, when Christian C. Tiews and his Telgte-born wife, Lula, moved to the Tomball area and
noticed the many similarities between Tomball and Lula’s hometown.
Telgte (pronounced Tell-gee, as in “Telge Road”), is a quaint German town, pop. 18,700, situated in the park-like landscape of North Rhine-Westphalia, 10 miles east of Münster, in northwest
Germany. It was founded in 1238 and is well known for its beautiful medieval architecture. Telgte is situated in the middle of Germany's “horse country,” and Tomball reportedly has the highest horse population per (human) capita in the United States.
Over the years, hundreds of citizens in both cities have visited each other. “Every two years, a group from Tomball visits Telgte,” Grady said. “When you visit there, you are on the front page of the newspaper, and they identify you as being from Tomball – not the United States, not Texas, but Tomball.”
The cities also sponsor a student exchange program. Fifty-six German students have stayed with host families in Tomball so far, and eight Texas students have taken advantage of the program. The German students attend one of two of the high schools in Tomball for one school year. Three male students are here now and are enjoying playing football.
After Hurricane Harvey, the City of Telgte sent a letter to Mayor Fagan. “Stunned and with much dismay we follow here in Telgte the tragedy which has been triggered by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and especially our sister city Tomball. The pictures we have seen of the damage are appalling, and the reality must be even more so….Our thoughts are with you.” The letter was accompanied by a check for $9,000 (American), which was used to support the Tomball Emergency Assistance Ministries and TOMAGWA Healthcare Ministries, as well as certain
Tomball first responders and senior citizens whose homes were damaged.