According to various Mennonite historians, theologians and sociologists, Anabaptists have historically been quite ambivalent towards the concept of Christmas. Such was not my experience growing up. In fact, I can recall at least two sermons from childhood on keeping the “Christ” in ‘X-mas’.
Sociologically speaking, and coming from five generations of public school teachers, Christmas traditions and celebrations, as we know them today, probably entered into our North American lives and folkways via the public schools which were mandatory, non-Mennonite and well-meaningly assimilationist. Further inroads were probably made by participation in and adherence to post-World War English-language, non-Anabaptist Sunday school curriculums, conference fellowships and ecumenical holiday drives (including the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s school packets and children’s gift box campaigns).
At the same time, many Mennonite folk holiday traditions seem so innate to our culture and world-view that one can hardly consider a time when they would not have been followed – including the baking, the hymn sings, the family and church fellowships, the church Christmas programs and a general feeling of shared peace and fellowship for at least that one night with all of creation – especially, for us former farmers, with our non-human companions – both domesticated and wild.
|Paul Harvey, American radio broadcaster|
In modern times, well, for as long as I can remember, part of our holiday celebration included listening to Paul Harvey’s special holiday radio story The Sparrows about a man struggling to understand the truth behind the Christmas story only to be taught by the plight of a freezing flock of birds he struggles in vain to shelter and to save.
The Sparrows played every year at Christmastime and I have many different memories of it including listening to it while making, peppernuts, spritz and portzilke with my mom while the younger sibs decorated the living room; sharing peppernuts, molasses cookies and home-made hot chocolate with my grandparents (well, grandpa most often drank Postum on these occasions) and listening to it while the winter winds howled outside; and, listening to the program while slowly making my progress from Minneapolis to the farm on the Montana – North Dakota – Saskatchewan border, feeling warmer and already closer to home with the familiar tones of Paul Harvey’s voice.
Of course, being a good CBC-1 listener growing up, I also remember eagerly awaiting CBC’s radio presentation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd each year – though this was a more restricted tradition of note mostly to my mother and me (the joy of being somewhat bi-national). As holiday travel and its inherent dangers became a larger part of my own holiday experience, I have often felt that, while listening on the road with only the company of passing headlights, the actual lesson of Alan Maitland’s reading of this short war story had less to do with Christmas and much more to do with encouraging each of us holiday travelers to press on into the darkness and through the frequent ground-blizzards threatening our progress and potentially preventing us from making our way safely to our homes and loved ones, should we lose our courage or our way.
In both instances, there was something powerful in the cultural fellowship of tuning into such programs along with millions of fellow radio-listeners, Mennonite and non-Mennonite, all of whom were similarly eagerly awaiting the program in question with holiday anticipation and all sharing in the same general sense of holiday warmth that such stories truly reflect that about which the holidays are truly all about.
As for those ancient Mennonite holiday traditions, Albert Wall wrote an essay in the Valley County Footprints about ….
By the 1950s, Ethel Wall, Bert’s wife, wrote in a holiday reminiscence …
… We put streamers up from the corners to the center of the ceiling [in the old J. C. Wall house] and open[ed] a red ball that fastened and hung it at the center. Decorated the Christmas Tree when children got home from [Center Bell] school [often with paper chains, popcorn on strings, and always, that very special, tiny silver bell.]We opened one gift each on Christmas eve and then went to the Bethel Lustre Christmas program. The children drew names and they opened their gifts.After the children were in bed, Bert and I filled a plate for each one; with candy, peanuts, cookies, and put it on the table wehre they sat, wo when they came for breakfast it was there for them.We usually had another gift for each one to open before they ate breakfast on Christmas morning.When chores were done, we would load up gifts to take to Glasgow to my folks [Robert and Mercedes Conatser] and others. Stay for dinner and then come home in time to do the evening chores. Then go to the [Lustre] M.B. Church program.Later in the week we would get together with Marvin and Esther [Fast] and Fritz and Al [Unger] families and have a dinner. We took turns doing this.
For another holiday reminiscence, Ethel elaborated further …
The children had to say their Christmas pieces and we’d sing some Carols before we’d open gifts.Sometimes we’d see if they could guess what the gift would be.When Elaine [Unrau] and Dwaine [Wall] had their 12th birthday [30 Dec], we went to Disney Land in California after having Christmas in [Dallas] Oregon with Grandma [Katharina, widow of John J.] Wall.We always were real happy when we’d open a gift from relatives or the children and there would be a picture of them inside.The children all gave us a set of China one year and we use it a lot.On Christmas eve, Bert went to the barn and gave the animals an extra amount of hay for their treat.Bert’s dad [John J. Wall] always did this.One time we went to see my brother and family [Bill and Laura Conatser in Choteau, Montana] and brought back 13 Christmas trees on top of our car.
Just a cultural note, I really appreciate the bit about Grandpa feeding the animals an extra Christmas helping of feed on Christmas eve. Grandpa was always very gentle and caring towards his animals, including dogs, cats, chickens and poultry, milk cows, beef cattle, horses and even a pony – but as often as possible, he had others feed the cattle as Bert suffered from severe hay fever allergies – so for him to feed the cattle on Christmas eve in person was quite the deal.
There is a tradition on the Swedish, non-Mennonite side of the family that on Christmas Eve, the farm elves or tömpten would look after the animals in the barn, making sure that each one was warm and cared for and that each received an extra Christmas helping of grain or meal. A further tradition states that at midnight, in recognition for having been present at that first nativity and for sharing their manger space with the tiny Lord Jesus, that each animal was granted the ability to speak at midnight, with only the tömpten around to hear it.
I like to think of Grandpa Bert playing the role of a Mennonite tomte in the small barn just off the old J. C. Wall house – trudging the short distance through the crisp, cold, very dark air glistening with low hanging stars and frozen ice crystals, welcoming the steaming warmth of the animals in the barn and their curious gazes toward the lantern light as the door creaked open. Carefully, the lantern, or electric hand-lamp would be set on the milking stool as the various animals were greeted and scoops of feed were doled out, each to an appropriate, reserved space, and gentle holiday blessings were exchanged between Grandfather and each animal, perhaps in English, possibly in old German – assuredly always via a contented cluck, a wagging tail or large warm eyes. Anyone who has spent any time with animals knows of such moments and would agree that such was probably the case for Grandpa Bert on these holidays.
Grandpa also used to volunteer to do this instead of the boys, whose chore it was normally to feed the animals and perform the evening milking. On Christmas eve, the children had other concerns, other activities. It is a labor of love for the father to embrace the cold and brave the hay fever in order to increase the joy of his family just that small amount – and to gently enjoy the quiet peace of such moments, perhaps somewhat selfishly, for himself. Perhaps Bert took time to recall similar moments experienced helping his own father feed the cattle on Christmas Eve as a child. As a child, such moments spent with his father, who was often occupied with chores much too dangerous for a young child to help with, were especially important to Bert who had been known to spend much of his play time imitating the tasks he imagined his father was performing elsewhere, away from the farmstead.
Such thoughts and motivations might come naturally to such gentle, peace-loving, hard-working Mennonite farmers, and many others, not just on the plains of Assiniboia, but across the world and across time.
en lostijch Wienachte! Fröhliche Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!
May God’s peace indwell each of you in this, His holiday season and may you find an extra special blessing in awareness of our fellowship with nature as found outside of ourselves.
Some last minute holiday recipes:
Hot Chocolate Mix for Holiday Fastpas
Linda Wall Eunice Wiens
Dry powdered milk 6 ¾ cups 6 cups
Instant cocoa mix,
Sweetened 3 ¾ cups 3 ¾ cups
Coffeemate Creamer ¾ cups 1 ½ cups
Powdered Sugar 1 ½ cups 1 cup
Mix all ingredients well. Often, one would use a glass gallon jar, add all ingredients and shake the jar to mix. Use mix to one’s own taste – commonly, one would use three heaping teaspoons of mix to one cup water.
I often use hot milk instead of water or add milk to cool off the hot chocolate for drinking. Grandma Ethel would occasionally add a bit of powdered nutmeg and cinnamon sprinkled lightly over the top – though spices were also infused when one drank hot chocolate “through” peppernuts (a distinct Mennonite tradition that is hard to teach). Hard peppernuts could also be softened by dipping in hot chocolate or just tossed in and fished out with a spoon (yes, Mennonites are definitely dunkers – it’s in our heritage!).
Note that a standard military issue package of powdered milk is 29 dry ounces or 5 ½ cups.
Makes excellent Christmas and holiday gifts when presented in pint or quart canning jars.
Russian Tea – Ethel Wall
⅓ cup Instant Tea 1 ¼ cup Tang (powdered Orange drink)
½ teaspoon powdered cinnamon ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup sugar Dash salt
Mix ingredients (see Hot Chocolate Mix). To serve, add 1 teaspoon Russian Tea mix to 1 cup hot water or ⅓ cup mix for 1 quart water.
This also makes a great holiday gift presented in a bag, or sealed in a pint or quart jar.
Hot Holiday Cider – Nancy Wall
1 gallon apple juice or cider ¼ cup Red Hots cinnamon-flavoured candies
Bring cider and Red Hots to a boil until candies are completely dissolved. Then add a few cinnamon sticks while waiting to serve. (Some feel that you have to bring cider to a boil, others that it is best to warm the cider and dissolve the candies without actually boiling the cider – Nancy’s version calls for you to bring the cider to a boil.).
This easy cider is used for fellowship time (fastpa) after church Christmas programs and often served during holiday open houses at local banks in Glasgow, Wolf Point and Scobey during the holiday shopping season – don’t forget to pick up the traditional bank calendars for the new year!