This is part of a book I am writing about our familiy's adventures as a singing group.
“All right, everyone grab a name.”
Obediently five chubby hands reached into the bowl and drew out a slip of paper.
“The one that is left is for the baby.”
I had learned that there was a board and care home in our neighborhood. Trying to picture being old and removed from my family and home at Christmas, I determined that the thing I would miss most about Christmas was hearing the children sing and seeing their excited, wonder-filled faces during the Christmas program.
There were only six residents, I was told. “Perfect,” I thought, “That will match up nicely with our family. Six elderly adults, one for each of our six very young children.”
If these folks were taken away from their traditional celebrations, I reasoned, then we would draw names, wrap up a simple gift for the children to give to whosever name they drew, learn a few Christmas carols, and bring a Christmas program to them.
The seed for that program had been planted many years earlier. My pastor husband had accepted a call to a 750-member congregation in a small southern Minnesota town. We had three young children, Philip, 3, Peter, 2, and Matthew, 1 when we arrived. Even though they were a mere 13 months apart and kept me busy at home I was an energetic young pastor’s wife, so I looked for ways to contribute to the church’s ministry. As we became more acquainted I discovered that there was no junior chior.
Working in the church came naturally for me. My husband was a pastor and this was our second parish, but my father was also a minister,as were both my grandfathers. (Our friends always kidded my husband and me that we were doomed to be incompatible. Although my husband’s father was also a pastor only one of his grandfathers had that profession.)
Anyway, being a pastor’s daughter meant music had always been a part of my life. We are Lutheran and one thing Lutherans do is sing! Piano lessons were an early failure of mine, but I did conquer the clarinet. (My sisters claim that that proficiency came only because I practiced every evening during dishwashing time.)
In the Christian Day School I attended as achild the children’s choir was an important part of congregational life. We learned to sing in harmony by the fifth grade and sang at least once a month for the church services. When there was a death in the congregation families often requested that the children’s choir sing at the funeral.
Whenever that happened grades four through eight would be excused from afternoon classes. We would solemnly file over to church from our school building. It seemed like a long climb up the steep steps to the balcony. Our tennis shoe-clad feet would shuffle into the balcony pews where we had a bird’s eye view of the open casket. Barely tall enough to peer over the balcony railing we would stare down at the body wondering if we would recognize the person who had died.
We thought of death as a part of life and accepted our role as comforters without
question. In our minds we were The Children’s Choir, a privileged group, and we
understood the important place we had in the life of the congregation.
With this background hovering in my memory, it seemed obvious to me that a church without a children’s choir was missing out on a wonderful opportunity for their young people to serve. I could lead the choir, but I would need someone to accompany us. (Remember those failed piano lessons? One of my strongest memories of being a newly wed, joining my husband in his first parish, was of meeting the head elder for the first time. “And do you play the organ?” he asked me eagerly. I’ll never forget watching his hopeful face collapse in disappointment when I had to say, “No”. There is nothing like learning that you do not measure up before you even begin!)
Hearing that we needed someone to accompany us one of the teens in the congregation offered her services. With that hurdle crossed we announced a starting date and a time for kids from fourth through eighth grades to come and sing. Much to my amazement eighteen eager faces looked out at me from the two pews in the balcony on the designated starting time of that first rehearsal. Our choir was born.
We had a wonderful time singing and kidding around. There were several seventh grade boys in the group. That put the stamp of approval on the whole deal as far as the other kids were concerned, and we never struggled to keep the group together.
In those years a favorite decoration at Christmas time was the crismon. These were church symbols, cut out of Styrofoam and decorated, sometimes ornately, sometimes very simply, with beads and sequins and glitter. I decided that our choir Christmas party would include doing something for others, so making crismons we could give away seemed simple enough. We had already decided to go Christmas caroling so the children asked their parents help us identify people for whom we could sing. Our criteria would be “people who lived alone”. It was a small town so people were aware of one another’s situations. We wanted eighteen names - one for each choir member.
Once we had enough names, we met on a night before the party to make the crismons. Each choir member made one crismon and drew a name from our caroling list. Their crismon would be a gift to that person. The artistic loved it, the less craftlike moaned in exasperation over their handiwork, but in the end, each child had created a precious gift for a precious child created by God.
The night of the party came. Joyful chaos. Rosy cheeks. Excited, nervous, bold, shy,eager, reluctant, we all piled out of the church into the five cars of parents who had volunteered to trundle the choir around town. The first stop was only a block away.
Eighteen balls of warmth and energy exploded out of the cars and trampled up the steps to the second floor apartment of a retired teacher. None of the kids remembered her, but most of their parents had benefited from her expertise during her many years of service to the children of that town. We had tried to call ahead to warn the people that we were coming, so she knew who it was when she heard the noise and the cheerful jostle at her door.
“Come in, come in.” she welcomed us warmly into her kitchen that was actually large enough to hold the entire group.
“Here, I made this for you. I drew your name,” said one of the children extending the crismon with an eager hand.
The woman’s face alighted with delight and all the children heaved a sigh of relief…their present wasn’t stupid….the recipient wouldn’t throw it back in their face…it was going to be ok. We sang a few songs, noisily made our exit, the children tumbling down the outside steps and over one another like noisy puppies. We clambered back into the cars and off we went. We still had lots of places to go.
The next stop was a group of apartments above one of the downtown storefronts. Once again we witnessed the explosion of bodies, the energetic stair climb, the excited voices echoing down the long hall.
Knock, knock, knock.
No answer. Knock, knock, knock.
No answer. A determined face turned to me.
“I have Mrs. Braun’s name. “
Knock, knock, knock.
Others were having better luck. People came out of their apartments to join in the excitement.
“Here, this is for you”.
“I made it. It’s the symbol of peace, a dove.”
“Here, it’s not very good, but I put your name on the back, so it’s the one you get.”
Knock, knock, knock.
Slowly a crack appeared in the door. A timid Mrs. Braun peeked out.
Not to be denied, a determined hand thrust through the crack holding a tissue wrapped crismon. “Here. I drew your name. This is for you.”
The crismon was lifted gently from the outthrust hand. Mrs. Braun whispered a quiet thank you. The child’s hand withdrew, and the door closed gently.
Behind us the hall was filling up with new arrivals with each knock. Excited voices chattered eagerly with the residents. We sang a few songs and, with a goodly number of our gifts delivered went on our way to finish the route. As we loaded into the cars I looked back at the windows of the apartments and there, in one window, a crisman already hung gaily. I’m pretty sure it was Mrs. Braun’s.
About two weeks after Christmas our choir received a thank you letter. It was from the retired teacher. She told us that our visit that night was the nicest thing that had ever happened to her. Having a rag-tag group of preteens tumble into her kitchen with a lame attempt at a Christmas decoration was the nicest thing that had ever happened to her? I had no idea that people lived such barren lives. If that’s all it took to bring joy, I had a plan.