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Christmas Memories, Part Five: Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht

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Church Candlelight Crop

I grew up on a farm just outside Niverville. The days on the farm were long and sweet and my life was secure and pleasant. But I spent a lot of the year waiting for the most exciting day of all—Christmas Eve.

My mom, dad, sisters, and I dressed in our finest to go to church. Well… actually our second finest. The very finest was for Christmas Day!

We always made it into town for the Christmas Eve service, no matter the weather. It seemed like every year there was snow falling; sometimes beautiful and soft and other years a swirling blizzard. It was, it seemed, always so cold. But you went to church on Christmas Eve and that was that.

We attended the Mennonite Brethren Church and I loved it with all my heart. In later years, I would become involved in different ways at the church, but during my childhood it was all about the Christmas Eve pageant. And a pageant it was. In my young mind, it was an absolute extravaganza of sight and sound.

The Saturday before Christmas Eve, the children would meet for a dress rehearsal. It was chaos. By then Joseph and Mary and the wise men had already been chosen and the rest of us were generally shepherds or angels. I loved being an angel because I could wear a long white gown that was excellent for twirling around in, and I could wear a piece of silver Christmas garland around my head for my halo.

There were songs and little plays. In my mind, we always sang “Silver Bells,” but I could be wrong. In my mind we were all so loud and obnoxious that the leaders must have been going crazy trying to wrangle us, but I could also be wrong about this!

Finally, on Christmas Eve, dressed in our (almost) finery, my family and I would slog down to the church for the big production. Mom and Dad would find a place in the packed church… you had to get there early or you might be relegated to the chairs set up in the back for overflow! And we girls would head downstairs to get ready for the show.

As soon as those angel gowns and shepherd housecoats were on, we quieted down. This was no time for levity; it was Christmas Eve.

We headed up the winding steps to the choir loft. It was dark and candlelit and felt totally different than any other day of the year. We would seek out our parents and give surreptitious waves, secure in the knowledge that they were watching and waiting.

There was no more chaos then. It was hushed, it was beautiful, it was Jesus’s birthday. The seriousness and import of the occasion was not lost on any of us that day. This was a big deal and we all knew it.

We would sing and perform, but I barely remember any of that part. I just knew we were all determined to do our best.

When I wasn’t singing, I sat and looked at our audience, feeling so close to them. I also looked at the back of the church at the large letters that read “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” And I thought about what this meant and how this was the reason we were celebrating.

After our performance, there was usually a congregational song or two. Many years it was my dad who led the singing, and often the song was “Silent Night.”

“Let’s sing all three verses of ‘Silent Night’ and then verse one again in German,” my dad would say.

And we would sing our hearts out. Our Mennonite voices come out of the womb prepared to find perfect four-part harmony, and we did exactly that.

As verse three came to a close, a soft thunk-thunk-thunk could be throughout the congregation, the songbooks being put away. The German version of “Silent Night” wasn’t in the green hymnals, and even if it had been we didn’t need it.

We had been reverent before, but as we began to sing the soft refrains of “Stille Nacht,” we became even more so.

This, I remember thinking. This is the moment when it happened. Jesus is being born.

That moment, every year, was the highlight of my year. The closeness I felt right then to my family, to Church, and to God will never be surpassed.

There would be a pause, and then life began again. We kids got to dash down the aisles and collect our loot: a brown paper lunch bag with some peanuts in the shell, a Christmas orange, and sometimes a few of those delicious (unwrapped!) hard candies that tasted like raspberries.

Now it was time to pile in the car and head back to the farm. When we got home, we would put on our nightgowns and sit in front of the fireplace to open presents. It was warm and cozy. Getting gifts is always fun!

But as I would settle into my bed that night, it wouldn’t be the presents I thought of; it would be the moment at church when time stopped.

“Stille Nacht, heilege Nacht. Alles schlaft…”

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