Monday, December 12, 2011

The Center of It All

A while ago a few of us Lutheran Pastors (the dull kind like me) were sitting around reminiscing about our most fond Christmas celebrations growing up.  For most of them, Christmas centered in the family.  They did not come from parsonages (except for one) and so most of them grew up attending a Christmas service and then exiting for the family gatherings, meals, and traditions of Christmas.  This is all well and good.  But even though I did not grow up in a parsonage, my childhood memories of Christmas celebrations are all wrapped around the Church. 

It seems that unless we got to Church before anyone else, my dad considered us "late."  But then he had always taken great ownership of the church building and things associated with my home congregation.  His ancestors began that congregation in the late 1800s.  His grandparents and parents are buried in the cemetery just out back of the altar.  I understand his protective and loving care of the Church and the ministry there.  So on Christmas Eve we got to Church early -- generally before anyone else, even the Pastor.  He checked the thermostats, turned on the lights, and made sure everything was ready.  First was the children's Christmas program.  Always on Christmas Eve and always before a packed congregation.  It ended with the Christmas service.  It seemed to take half a day but it was probably only a couple of hours we were there.

The one consolation was that every child received a bag of candy and a piece of fruit -- usually the brightest and most shiny red apple ever surrounded by some peanuts in the shell, some chocolates, and some hard candies (you know the rippled hard candies that cut your tongue if you weren't careful as they melted away in your mouth).  At the end of it all, my brother and mom and I would made our way to the cold car to wait for dad.  As he was first there, so he was last to leave.  Everything turned on, had to be turned off and such.  We never thought of starting the car to warm it up.  We sat huddled together in the cold waiting for dad so we could head home.

Home on Christmas Eve was a meal of oyster stew, some head cheese, some soft caraway seeded cheese called Bond-Ost, some homemade rye bread, and the like.  Typical Swedish fare (mom's side) but it was good stuff.  We opened a few gifts (we did not get much more) and headed off to bed.  At 4 am, we got up and walked down the 6-8 blocks to my maternal grandparents to accompany them to Julotta -- Swedes get up ridiculously early for the first service of Christmas at dawn.  Then we all headed to my parents to eat.  Another gift or two and then, for most of us, it was a nap.

Now some of you might think that sounds incredibly dull, almost cruel in its absence of great family oriented traditions, but, for us, the Church was the center of it all.  I don't mean this in some pious or prideful sense but this was just simply how it was.  Christ was the center of everything we knew growing up.  For me, this is Christmas.  It matters not that I am a Pastor.  I would try to do the very same thing for my family if I was not a Lutheran Pastor.  Christ and the Church are the center of it all.  Period.

Perhaps this was the best gift I had growing up -- growing up in a home overtly Christian and confidently Lutheran... in which Church was not on the fringes of our lives but the center... where our extended family gathered as the family of God with folks we had no blood relationship to -- except through the blood of Christ! 

I used to cringe and now just sigh when people ask me "where are you spending Christmas, Pastor?"  Where, indeed?  But it is not about work.  It is about Christ.  We spend Christmas at Church -- singing the carols, hearing the familiar lessons, receiving the Sacrament, holding the candle in the darkness, the strains of Silent Night in German echoing away in the still moment of the greatest gift of God revealed in the manger so He might show Himself on the cross...  The wonderful thing is that my kids never rebelled -- they understood just as I had growing up... it is about Christ...  it is in the Church... for it to be Christmas...  They still come to all the services (hearing the same sermon twice), singing in choir, ushering, playing flute, etc.  In this way I see the tradition of my family growing up continued in our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord on the feast of the Nativity...


Terry Maher said...

I seem to recall people going to each others' houses on Christmas Eve with small gifts. Couldn't wait for Mrs Hennessey, who despite the married name was German and brought stollen for our breakfast. MAN! Stollen, Brät und Eier -- Weinachten richtig! (I'm not a real German, I just play one in LCMS.) Then everyone reconvened for Midnight Mass.

Which in those days was actually at midnight. Later, it was moved to ten, for "pastoral reasons". Nobody visits now, hardly anyone goes anywhere for services, at midnight, ten or otherwise.

Our Christmas is at 5 Christmas Eve then 10 at our sister parish, then a Christmas day service at 10 am. There's a local store that carries stollen! Nobody likes is but me. And I sing Stille Nacht whether everyone else sings Silent Night or not.

Anonymous said...

"At 4 am, we got up and walked down the 6-8 blocks to my maternal grandparents to accompany them to Julotta -- Swedes get up ridiculously early for the first service of Christmas at dawn."

LOL, come on Pr. Peters, dawn on Christmas Day in Nebraska without daylight savings is like 9:00. Twilight around 8:30.

Did you walk uphill in the snow both to and from church as well?

Luv ya, but your childhood memories may be a wee colored by perceptions as a child.

I hope they don't try that this year, the new moon is at 12 on Christmas Eve. It's gonna be dark!

Terry Maher said...

Uh, speaking of coloured perceptions, sunrise yesterday was 0740, sunset was 1655, (455pm for the temporally challenged) CST. Ain't gonna be a whole lot different on Christmas here in Nebraska.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like we agree, Terry.

It gets light around 7:30 and sunrise is about 8 with daylight savings. Without daylight savings, add and hour.

I used Sioux City, as a reference because I remembered he said he was from a town near Osmond, where my family was from.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, made me check upcoming service times at local churches for Christmas.

All the Catholic parishes around here offer midnight mass. A friend of mine who is Catholic has told me that the early Christmas Eve masses are mainly for kids and they are usually packed.

Most Lutherans have services on Christmas Eve between 6:00 and 8:00p.m.

Many Protestants don't seem have Christmas day services at all.

Anonymous said...

"Now some of you might think that sounds incredibly dull, almost cruel in its absence of great family oriented traditions, but, for us, the Church was the center of it all."

Not dull at all, Pastor. In most German/Scandinavian traditions Christmas Eve at church has always been important. Gifts were usually opened after the family came home from church, not on Christmas day.

Anonymous said...

Growing up as I did during WWII - we walked to church. More often than not there was snow on the ground. Parochial School service first followed by candlelight service at mid-night.

Pastor Peters said...

Would you naysayers like to peruse a family history page with the reference for Julotta at 5 am in Wausa, NE?

Pastor Peters said...

Or check out page 4 of the Swedish American newsletter and its description of Swedish Christmas in Wausa, NE, with Julotta at 5 am:

Anonymous said...

"Swedish Christmas in Wausa, NE, with Julotta at 5 am"

So, was it light by the time you left?

Okay, I guess I am the only one to see the humor in this story. Usually the joke goes, "There is a Dane, a Norwegian and a Swede..." but the punch line is that the Norwegian is the silly one.

There has to be a Swedish joke in there somewhere; something about the Swedes having the candlelight service in the morning instead of the night before.

I guess I am just uncultured.

I guess I will have to check out the links.

FWIW I looked, and in Stockholm the EARLY service is at 7 am but sunrise isn't till a couple of hours later. So, hey, I guess that 4 am walk in the snow was the price they had to pay for moving so far SOUTH to northern Nebraska!

I can't help it. It is cracking me up. Maybe I am just in a silly mood.

No offense, guys.

Anonymous said...

There is Christmas celebration at
church....there is Christmas
celebration at home. Should we
notice a difference? The church
involves our spiritual family and
our home involves our physical
family. Often they are intermingled.
Scripture is read and carols are
sung at both church and home. The
real difference...The informality
of the home fireplace and the home-
made food.

Terry Maher said...

CST is Central Standard Time. There is no daylight savings. Sunrise was 20 minutes to 8 yesterday.

Anonymous said...

CST is Central Standard Time. There is no daylight savings. Sunrise was 20 minutes to 8 yesterday.

Yes, of course, you are right. Daylight savings is for the other half of the year. Duh.

Still, keeping the tradition so far south meant getting up 2 hours earlier. Hey, I wonder what time the service is in Argentina, sunrise, 5:30?!!!

Uh, looks like they throw in the towel and just have it at 11. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

Pastor Peters said...

Now to be sure, some years we did have to walk 5 miles to get there, carrying a bucket of coal for the stove, and candles in our pockets so that we could see the hymnbook, but I left out that part because I did not think you would find it credible... Ha ha ha ha

Terry Maher said...

It's enough to make me wanna fly to Australia and have Christmas at the beach!

Anonymous said...

One year we were glad that the Peters
family no longer had to walk to
church for Christmas. They had a
horse and buggy ride to church, and
were able to use the hitching post
in front of the building. After the
Christmas Service the boys in the
family had to shovel the horse poop
before they could return home.