This article by G. Birkmann first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, Giddings, Texas on December 19, 1935.
My intent is not to create the impression among the readers of these lines that our observance of Christmas Eve in Fedor was something unusual, something not found in other congregations at that time long ago. I know very well that such festivities were planned and carried out similarly elsewhere, maybe even more significantly and better. I am also very well aware that nowadays in many of our churches Christmas Eve has become a splendid observance with electric lighting, especially on the Christmas trees, as different from the paltry candles of earlier times. I know too that the children’s service is conducted in English rather than German and that people go to the trouble of offering significant varieties in what the children present.
I merely wish to tell in simple terms how it was done almost sixty years ago among us in Fedor [i.e., his first Christmas there], reflecting the great joy of our congregation at Christmas, and especially of our children and me, their teacher at the time.
“Behold,” the angel said to the shepherds at Bethlehem, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.”
I have no memory from my childhood of a children’s service on this holy eve. In my home place in Illinois, our first observance of Christmas was an early service at 6:00 a.m. on Christmas Day itself, a service which the congregation was eager to attend. Some came the evening before and spent the night with friends living close to the church. Others got up in the middle of the night to drive, often through ice and snow, to the church miles away. They wanted to be there, and then to stay for the main service later in the morning.
In my parents’ home, we had our celebration with the Christmas tree shortly after the end of the early service. The tree stood in my father’s study, in which we children were not permitted, naturally, until the very moment of presentation. We waited longingly until the door opened and the tree with its glowing candles stood before us. On the table were the special gifts for us five children. This kind of thing that you experience and feel as a child stays with you your whole life long. So it was that I could identify with what made our school children in Fedor so animated. Naturally, that was the joyous anticipation of Christmas gifts, not only from their parents, but also in church during the course of this holy eve, seeing the beautiful large Christmas tree glowing brightly and richly decorated, in part with edible things. And then, besides all that, to get a not so small paper bag – what all would it contain this year?
But this joy certainly was not the real or main joy of the occasion. Our children also learned to know always better their Savior, especially at the beloved Christmas time. They know how badly they needed such a Savior and what they had in him. They sang:
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child,
Make thee a bed soft, undefiled,
Within my heart that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
[Luther’s original translates literally, but not poetically:
Oh, my baby Jesus, loved from the heart,
Make a clean, soft little bed for yourself
To rest within the shrine of my heart
So that l may never forget you.]
This joy made their hearts beat fast during the entire season as they counted the days and hours until the festival finally arrived.
Whether there were any children’s services in Fedor before I came I do not know. At any rate, someone suggested to me that we have a Christmas tree in the church and that the small children prepare and practice in advance. That pleased me. Nothing brought me more joy than singing and studying Bible history with the children. What a joy to hear the children sing the beloved Christmas hymns and to listen to their telling the Christmas story!
We discussed at a congregational meeting what would be required. A tree might be found at Heinrich Patschke’s place or in Iselt’s pasture. To gather the needed funds for gifts for the children, a collector was named to approach the adults, and especially the young people, to ask for a quarter apiece. We needed to buy oranges, apples, candy, pastry, and nuts, along with decorations and candles for the tree. Pecans were excluded because they were so common among our people. No, it must be niggertoes [his word exactly] (Brazil nuts) or filberts (hazelnuts) or German walnuts or almonds. I suggested that it would also be good to give something which the children might use over a longer time, perhaps small books with stories for the older children and picture books for the little ones. This proposal was approved with the suggestion that we not spend much money on sweets. Later it turned out that the sweets were the children’s absolute favorite.
Then came the several weeks of enjoyable preparations for the festival. No child wanted to miss school now that the sayings about the birth of the Savior were being learned by heart and Christmas songs were being sung: [The newspaper article as printed includes the entire first stanza of each of the following.] Ihr Kinderlein, kommet,…[0, Come All Ye Children], 0 du fröhliche,…[O You Happy…Christmastime], Herbei, O ihr Gläubigen,…[O Come, All Ye Faithful], Stille Nacht,…[Silent Night], and other such well known Christmas songs, including some that appear in our hymnal, especially, Vom Himmel hoch,…[ From Heav’n Above] and Lob Gott ihr Christen,…[Praise God, Ye Christians, One and All].
These songs and others proclaim the glorious Christmas Gospel and the wonderful melodies impress that message on your heart. These weeks in which I devoted an hour a day with the children to singing and reciting passages have remained unforgettable for me, and that is what moves me to write this article. Everyone knows how eager a little tot is to recite such a passage, whether a prophecy of the birth of Christ or the account itself as told by Luke in his precious Gospel, chapter two. In the first place, how wonderfully God fit everything together that the child Jesus was born in Bethlehem in accord with the prediction of the prophet Micah. Then the appearance of the angel who called out to the frightened shepherds on the fields of Bethlehem, “Fear not,….” Then the choir of heavenly hosts with the angel to sing their song of praise. And when the angels had gone back to heaven, what did the shepherds say? And what they said they did quickly. They went to Bethlehem and saw the baby, the Savior born for them. Since this joy belonged to all people, they soon spread the word which was told them about the child. Then they made their way, filled with praise, back to their flocks and pens [in German, Herden und Hürden].
I think that this account which our children practiced especially for Christmas and the accompanying songs which they sang with such enthusiasm made a lasting impression on them and that each likes to think back to that time, especially in times of trouble which do arise – yes, even at the time of the last ordeal, to hold on to the Savior, who came for all.
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived for me and my congregation and their children. We had no other evening services, other than the New Year’s Eve service, and lighting in the church was limited to a small chandelier and a half dozen kerosene lamps. Beyond that, candles provided what help they could. But the Christmas tree was there and, as long as its small candles burned, it was quite bright. We had no stove, and it was often very cold in church. (It had no ceiling. You saw the underside of the roof above.) But the burning candles tempered the cold a little, and the enthusiasm of the congregation, especially of the school children, banished such difficulties. And let me affirm without any exaggeration that some of the people, including elderly men and women, came as far as four or five miles on foot.
My heart was quite full on such festivals, especially on Christmas Eve, when I had to step out of my sacristy into the glow of the lights in front of the crowd of those there to celebrate, especially the children. (When our congregation in Fedor in time had a teacher, this whole thing was simpler and easier for me, but here I am talking about those times in which I had to take care of everything.) I needed to sit at the organ (reed organ, that is), which had been carried down from the balcony, while people stood around me and watched my fingers as I played. But when the singing got underway, lively and happy, I forgot my troubles and could proceed with the children from song to song.
Each of the children had to be heard from, just as each had to participate in the distribution of the treats afterwards. I had an address for the congregation, but Teacher Leubner [serving St. Peter’s, Serbin] told me later that I could save myself the trouble because in this service the children themselves are the preachers. I was thankful for this instruction and never again delivered an address on Christmas Eve.