Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 16, 2002 Herald Journal
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Christmas Eve 1952, and the traditions that made it special


Christmas Eve in 1952, like every other special event at our house, began with a good scrubbing.

I never knew a woman in the world who hated dirt more than my mother did.

Her theory: dirt belongs in the garden, not behind your ears.

My brother Sonny (Harold, Jr.) and I learned pretty early in life that we had better find all of it ourselves or Mom would humiliate us by wetting the corner of her handkerchief with her tongue and wiping away the offending spot in public.

I think that's how the phrase "I hate it when that happens!" originated.

With red ears and a clean neck, it was time to get dressed for church. After I put on my white shirt, I can remember my big brother standing behind me tying my necktie in front of our bedroom mirror.

In the '50s, kids got dressed up for church ­ no blue jeans, no tennis shoes. If you owned a suit, you wore it.

Sonny snapped my suspenders as we ran down the stairs, and Mom said, "Now quit fooling around and get your coats on."

The four of us rode to church in our blue 1950 Chevy pickup truck. My dad, of course, drove, and Sonny got to sit in the middle and helped Dad shift gears.

You had to be in seventh grade to help drive. I was only in first and had to sit on my Mom's lap; however, it was dark and only a four-block ride to church, so I didn't mind too much.

The vast majority of people living in and around Lester Prairie were Lutherans. There were a few Catholic families in town (mostly Radtkes) who had migrated over from Winsted a few generations back.

If you weren't Lutheran or Catholic, you probably went to our church, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, "the other church in town" as most people referred to it.

Our liturgy wasn't quite as formal as the Lutherans'; we were more liberal about whom we would marry, bury, and baptize, and we didn't seem to have quite as many ways to get sent to hell.

At least that's how my Mom explained it. She used to be a Lutheran before she married my dad and got reformed.

As strange as it may seem, even as a kid I didn't mind going to church. I think what I liked most was the certainty and regularity of things.

There were people and things you could count on in church. When you came in the door, you could count on Otto Ristow being there. He was the head usher, the everlasting usher, as I called him. The other ushers changed every month, but not Otto. He was there for every service.

You could count on Rev. Fischer's sermon putting some of the farmers to sleep. You could tell which men were farmers, because the skin above their shirt collars was brown and leathery, and the red color of their faces ended one inch above their eyebrows, producing a straight line across their white foreheads.

Mom said that farmers had to get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to milk cows, so it was all right if they slept ­ just a little.

My dad didn't get up until 6 a.m., so he had no excuse. If his head bobbed during the sermon, Mom gave him an elbow.

Out of habit, most families sat in the same place each week. Sometimes visitors made it necessary to sit somewhere else, but people never strayed too far from their comfort zone. We always sat on the right side, about four rows from the back.

Another thing you could count on was the fact that every year there would be one additional little face in Elmer Dietel's pew, the one just behind ours. I think it was during baptism number seven or eight, that I heard Mom whisper to Dad, "I think Elmer needs a new hobby. Their pew is about full."

For me, Christmas Eve was the perfect combination of agony and ecstasy.

The agony part was standing up in front of the church to recite my Christmas pageant piece. The ecstasy part, of course, was returning home to open Christmas gifts.

Christmas Eve was the only time that Dad ever dropped the family off at the front door of the church. I suspect that while Sonny and I were in the church basement getting lined up for the program, Dad would drive back home to place the presents under the tree.

Every year Santa came when we were gone. It was always my plan to stay home from church just once to catch him.

At our little white church, firmly rooted in its traditions, we presented the "real" Christmas story on Christmas Eve. It wasn't some modernized, bee-bop mutilation of Christmas presented two weeks in advance.

We had the real thing on Christmas Eve. No microphones, no slide show, no guitars, no multicultural alternative traditions. Every word in our pageant, however mumbled or shouted, was taken straight from the Bible.

I was a little envious of my brother this year, because he got to be one of the shepherds and didn't have a piece to memorize. Sonny, however, seemed less than thrilled with the setup because he wanted to be Joseph, probably because Lois Fruetel was Mary.

Before I knew it, the pageant was well underway. The evil King Herod had been outsmarted. The wise men had faithfully followed the star. The shepherds had made their way to Bethlehem, and Mary and Joseph were sheltered in the stable surrounded by animals and angels.

We were up next. My Sunday school class was made up of Rosalind and Rosalie Rennells, Mary Lou Fruetel, and me. It seemed to me that year after year, I always got stuck with the longest speaking parts. I guess my teachers had concluded that with a nerdy name like Stanley, I was probably capable of memorizing anything.

So, there we were, standing on the first step just in front of the manger scene. To my right were Rosalind and Rosalie dressed in matching white blouses and green Christmas tree-like skirts, decorated with sewn-on miniature ornaments.

To my left was Mary Lou in a polka dot blouse and a red puffy pinafore, looking a little like a carnival cupie doll. Our teacher, Marcella, was crouched down on her knees off to one side, ready to help us if we forgot our lines.

Rosalind and Rosalie were first. They always got to say their lines together because they were twins. "And the angel said unto the shepherds, 'Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.'"

Next was my part. Looking at my mother several rows back, I suddenly remembered what she had told me about not putting my hands in my pockets, so I quickly took them out and saw a brief wave of relief sweep over her face, until I hooked my thumbs behind my suspenders.

This produced a smile, so I began, "For unto you is born this day, in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

Mary Lou would be the last to speak. She had always been assigned the shortest, easiest recitations, which obviously didn't seem fair to me.

Once, when I asked my mother why Mary Lou always got the easy parts, Mom simply said, "Because she's Mary Lou. Now you just worry about your own part."

It was her turn to speak, but Mary Lou just stood there slowly twisting left and right at the waist, making the bottom edge of her skirt rotate back and forth. Our teacher finally caught Mary Lou's attention and began to mouth the words of her piece.

When that didn't work, Marcella began to whisper the words, a bit too loudly. Nothing. No response.

Mary Lou just stood there staring at her. Well, I'd been down this road before at rehearsal, so I reached over and pulled Mary Lou's thumb out of her mouth, and out popped the words "And his name shall be called Jesus."

She was supposed to say Emmanuel, but in the reformed church Jesus was close enough.

So with glistening eyes the congregation applauded, and we were done, at least until the following year.

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