This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 23 December 1937 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 290 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens.
When I was young, we knew nothing of children’s services on Christmas Eve, nor did we have a Christmas tree in the church. But, certainly, both in school and at home we prepared for the approaching celebration through meditation on God’s great works of redemption and the beloved Christmas stories which are told us in the Bible. We were especially delighted to be able to sing many beautiful Christmas songs, both in school and at home, during this time. When the actual celebration drew near, things at home became very different from the ordinary. Mother was quite busy baking, among other things, and father’s study was closed to us children. If you had peeked through the keyhole, you may have seen father in the nightshirt he wore in the winter standing in front of a small cedar tree on the table, or maybe moving back and forth to get things to attach to the little tree. I do not believe, though, that we little ones ever saw such a thing except in our imagination.
Under the tree on the table were placed the gifts for each of the children, a matter which had to be taken care of in advance with a several-day trip to St. Louis, about twenty-five miles away. The presentation of gifts occurred, not already on Christmas Eve, but after the early morning Christmas service. That 6:00 a.m. service was well attended by families, some of which had to travel six miles through the snow or at least on bad roads. Those that lived at a distance would stay after the early service with friends nearby in order to attend also the main service, at which Holy Communion would be celebrated. We school children sang the songs we had prepared at the early service, but not at the foot of a Christmas tree nor with anything other than the joy of the great Christmas message and the congregational singing, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” Afterward, the gifts were presented at home. How the little tree would glisten with its little lights [candles?] and how wonderful throughout the house the odor of cedar and of freshly baked cake.
In that way we children experienced a number of happy Christmases, but there was one in which sorrow and sadness almost suppressed the joy, the occasion of the illness and death of my sainted father, the pastor of the congregation for almost sixteen years. He had wanted to take me with him to St. Louis near the beginning of Advent in 1865 to participate in the dedication of the grand new Trinity Church, but, before we could go, my father fell ill with pneumonia, and four weeks later, just after Christmas, he departed [this life]. It was a time in which the Christmas message lifted us up, “Today a Savior has been born for you, Christ, the Lord, our God. He wishes to deliver you from all distress. He himself wants to be your Savior, to cleanse you from all your sin.”
My Christmases in Fort Wayne
I spent six years, 1867-1873, at our synod’s college in Fort Wayne. When Christmas vacation time came, those who lived nearby went home, as did those who had wealthy parents. But most of the students had to stay on campus, where they had a good time amusing themselves – no need to study during this time – plenty of time to play games together on the college grounds or go ice skating on the frozen canal, which crossed near the campus and on which during the summer barges loaded with freight and passengers went by without interruption. In the winter, it offered us college boys a most wonderful skating path, for the ice was much smoother and safer than that on the Maumee River, which ran roughly parallel. Ice skating was our main winter sport with which to be entertained outdoors, though we enjoyed many amusements also indoors in our rooms. Those who enjoyed reading found enough time during vacation to get a book or periodical from the library, or, if they chose not to read, they could play dominoes or board games like chess and checkers. Even when one became tired of all of this, he could do other things to have fun, always, however, in moderation and under the supervision which our director provided as he made his frequent rounds, also during vacation time, through all the rooms, smoking a cigar that someone had given him for Christmas. (Students could not smoke without permission of their parents, and in no case before they were eighteen. Even then, no smoking in the buildings, only outdoors, unless one had specific permission to smoke in his room.)
So it was that our vacations seemed to go by quickly. They offer me pleasant memories, especially because they gave me much more opportunity to associate with and to enjoy myself with friends and classmates.
One of our vacations ended badly. It was at the end of 1869 [middle of Birkmann’s third high school year], when a group of students were sleeping in the main building, another group, including me, in a neighboring building. At three or four in the morning, we heard the college bell ringing loud and constant. We awakened in a fright, dressed minimally, and hurried outside, where we saw that the main building was in flames and a crowd already gathered, waiting helplessly for the arrival of the fire department from the city. When the fire brigade finally arrived after a full half hour (we were about a mile away from where they needed to come), it was too late to save the building, for the flames were already coming out of the tower above.
Hundreds of people stood around the building, gazing at the flames and deploring the loss. Among them was one of our professors, recently arrived from Germany, who apparently found beauty in the sad spectacle as he looked up at the burning tower and said, “How beautifully the Dürmlein [a mispronunciation of Türmlein (little tower), and so a nonsense word] is burning.” He came from Saxony, where many say “Dürmlein” when they mean “Türmlein.”
The loss was significant, both for the synod and for the students who lived and slept in the middle or main building. They lost their books, bedding, and clothes, though, happily, they all escaped with their lives. Soon a collection was gathered in the synod to compensate for the loss, with money and clothes also for the students. So much was gathered in the congregations that both the building destroyed by fire could be rebuilt and also another building, started but never finished for lack of funds, could also be completed.
But, in the meantime, there was a real shortage of space, and many boys were taken in by members of the congregation in town. I was one of those. The change, being able to march back and forth every day and to live with a family instead of on campus, pleased us at first. But we soon grew tired of that and would rather have lived on campus, especially when cold winds made the walk difficult. I caught such a bad cold during this time that I had to be examined by a doctor, who prescribed cod liver oil, which I did not enjoy at all. On the other hand, I did enjoy the beef broth which the housemother provided me every morning, a useful woman whom I loved. Within several months, the new construction on campus was far enough along that all the students whose parents did not live in Fort Wayne could live at the college again.