You can watch a parade, attend a pageant or dance to live music in towns all over Minnesota every weekend of the summer. If you want to ride a camel or eat some bigos, the traditional Polish meat-and-sauerkraut stew, your options are fewer.
You’ll find the camel at the St. George Middle Eastern Festival in West St. Paul. You can get your fill of bigos at the Polish Festival in Minneapolis.
There are typical community festivals, and then there are heritage festivals. Both involve people getting together to have a good time while celebrating their shared past.
Heritage festivals reach further back. They re-create food, crafts, music, dances, clothing and other traditions in the countries from which families emigrated, generations ago or just recently. Components standard to all festivals take on an exotic twist.
“You’re not going to find mini-donuts or corn dogs here,” said Ed Rajtar, a co-founder of the Twin Cities Polish Festival (Aug. 10-12 along SE. Main St.; tcpolishfestival.org). “We keep it pretty authentic.”
Along with the aforementioned bigos, they serve pierogi (filled dumplings), kotlety schabowe (fried pork), paczki (filled doughnuts), potato pancakes and, of course, Polish sausages. Also Polish beer and wine.
The St. George Middle Eastern Festival (July 20-22; mideastfest.com) serves spit-roasted lamb, chicken kabobs, falafel, hummus, gyros, spinach pies and Middle Eastern-style flatbread pizzas. At Kolacky Days in rural Montgomery, Minn. (July 27-29; montgomerymn.org), you can sample — what else? — kolacky, a traditional Czech pastry. You could even compete in a kolacky-eating contest, but prepare to get stuffed; past champions have devoured the fruit-filled rolls by the dozens.
In Minnesota, heritage festivals honor German, Irish, Japanese, Swedish, Caribbean, Somali and other cultures. Besides maintaining shared traditions, heritage festivals also demonstrate their communities’ contributions to 21st-century Minnesota culture, said Robert H. Lavenda, a retired St. Cloud State University anthropologist who has studied Minnesota community festivals for 35 years.
“That sense of belonging is a really important issue,” said Lavenda, author of “Corn Fests and Water Carnivals: Celebrating Community in Minnesota.”
Kolacky Days, founded in 1929, commemorates a long Czech presence in Minnesota, said board member Maureen Franek. Czech people settled in the area in the mid- to late-1800s, and the Czech identity remains strong.
“I’m in my early 50s, and when I was growing up it was not uncommon at all to hear people speaking Czech in the grocery store,” Franek said. “My sister’s father-in-law didn’t even know English growing up.”
When Anthony Rezcallah helped found the St. George Middle Eastern Festival 11 years ago, the organizers’ major goal was “to let people know that Christianity is alive and well in the Middle East and has been for two millennia.”
The festival’s attractions are designed to span that whole history. Camel rides are offered next to a large wall painting of Byzantine-style stone arches and pillars, a setting intended to conjure the experience of riding a camel in a small Christian village in Lebanon or Jordan or Syria, centuries ago.
All are welcome here
Of course, festival attendees aren’t limited to people who share that cultural heritage. The Middle Eastern Festival, Rezcallah stressed, wants attendees of all religions and national backgrounds to feel welcome.
“We have an expression, ‘ahla wa sahla,’ ” he said. “What it means is when somebody comes to your home, whether you know them or not, you bring them in and sit down for a meal. … You’re part of the family, so come in and take it easy. We wanted the festival to exemplify that message.”
The Twin Cities Polish Festival is another relatively recent addition to the heritage festival scene, although Poles have lived in Minnesota for generations. Ten years ago, Ed Rajtar and three others decided it was high time to start a festival.
“The four of us decided it was important to share our culture and actually set the record straight on some things,” said Rajtar, whose parents came from Poland. “For years, Poles were the brunt of jokes. All anybody knew about Polish people was Polish sausage.”
They aim to promote Poland past and present — music, for example, ranges from 19th-century composer Frédéric Chopin to touring Polish rock bands — while passing traditions down to the next generation.
“We just wanted to keep our kids abreast of their background and their culture,” Rajtar said. “A lot of people seem to lose that.”