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Boomer’s Journal: The sweet sounds (and smells) of Christmas

The great big Christmas tree, all the way to the ceiling, was decorated in tinsel and lights. The darkened church was full with anticipation. Other than a few whispers, there was a hush…silence right before the best sounds of Christmas were about to begin.

Back in the day, our church Christmas program was at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night. It was set right around when most small children should be getting ready for bed, but since just about everyone had farm chores to do first, and the milking had to be done, the program time was set for bedtime. No time to be tired. The children were ready. We each had our Christmas outfits on, and we were way too excited to think about what time it was.

My cousins at Christmas Eve in 1960. Contributed photo

My cousins at Christmas Eve in 1960. Contributed photo

The Sunday school annex was full of excited and nervous children, all the way up to senior high. Many of the “big kids” didn’t have to recite memorized verses; they were the lucky ones. They were the ones who could get on the ladder and trim the tree. They were the teachers’ aides. They were the ones who sang in perfect unison. Not much pressure on them; they worked as a group. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be one of them. But first, we all had to go through the growing years. First, WE were the small children.

Oh the nerves. Do you remember your first Christmas program piece? Our Sunday school teacher would hand out our “pieces”…those little white slips of paper with words…probably right around Thanksgiving…and we were to take them home and memorize them. Sleepless nights of dread and anticipation ensued. Would I remember the words? I wanted it to be perfect.

I remember standing in the darkened church with only the annex lights on and the altar candles lit, hoping that no one would see that my knees were shaking and I had a lump in my throat. The program was about to begin.

The Sunday school superintendent might have needed to adjust the microphone, if there was one. Maybe one of the “big kids” adjusted it. Regardless of who was maneuvering it, the mic generally shrieked and blared its high-pitched whistle off-and-on during the night, but it was set. Christmas pieces were recited as each child would bend over toward the microphone, breathing heavily into the mouthpiece, as their piece echoed…or a teeny-tiny voice whispered across the vast audience. A hunched-over teacher (or one of the “big” kids) would adjust the height of the stand, making it taller as the classes grew. No matter how high the microphone stand was set, it was never high enough. No matter where the child stood, heavy breathing was the first thing we’d hear. Oh, the wonderful sounds of Christmas…

Those little voices, reciting memorized pieces, made parents proud. Maybe even a few tears were shed. The littlest ones sang loud and clear, Silent Night and Away in the Manger. Oh, the wonderful sounds of Christmas…

We were rewarded for our successful program recitations and the Christmas carols we sang, with a little brown bag of treats. An apple, some in-the-shell peanuts and some rock-hard ribbon-candy. I can still smell the apple, so delectable…and I can still smell the Christmas tree in the church of my childhood. Oh my goodness, the sweet smell of Christmas…

On Christmas Eve dad would remind us to stand on the back porch, and if we listened very carefully, we would be able to hear our church bells ring. I was astounded that, sure enough, just like he promised, right at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I heard church bells…coming across the fields…all the way from Erdahl. How was that magical sound happening? Oh, those sweet sounds of Christmas still ring in my ears.

My cousins on Christmas Eve in 1965. Contributed photos

My cousins on Christmas Eve in 1965. Contributed photos

And on Christmas Eve night, after dinner and before we could open presents, my cousins and I would have to recite our memorized church pieces and sing the favored Silent Night and Away in the Manger. Once again, the older kids were able to sit back, relax, and watch as us younger ones squirmed and fidgeted (me, anyway), trying to remember the piece we had just recited about five days earlier. I guess the older kids had gone through their younger years in our shoes, but right now, we were the ones who were expected to deliver. The aroma of the lutefisk and meatball supper had settled over the living room, and we said our piece and sang our songs. Ah, the sweet sounds and smells of Christmas…

As our generation grew and our own kids memorized their pieces, we of course, brought the tradition forward. We were filled with pride as they recited their pieces and sang the same songs. We took it another level higher when we decided our children should also dress the part of the nativity scene at every family Christmas gathering. Out came the bathrobes, kitchen towels, twine, burlap sacks, broomsticks, yardsticks, grandpa’s cane, gold garland and one baby doll. Our youngest children had looks of bewilderment, wondering why they were wearing a kitchen towel on their head and had twine around their waists, and the t’weens-and-teens rolled their eyes, hoping to get to the presents as soon as the photo opportunity had been fulfilled. We as parents were happy, and our parents who were now grandparents, sat back and watched as our family Christmas unfolded. Our kids most likely remember well the aroma of the lutefisk and the meatball supper and that dreaded green Jell-O salad with a dollop of Miracle Whip. Oh yes, those sweet sounds and smells of Christmas had been carried over to the next generation.

My grandson, Gabriel Lee, at a Christmas program in 2015. He is the one in middle with the tie and hat. Contributed photos

My grandson, Gabriel Lee, at a Christmas program in 2015. He is the one in middle with the tie and hat. Contributed photos

And now, we sit back as our grandchildren recite their verses and sing the same songs. Pride fills our hearts and tears may stream down our cheeks. “C is for cow”…said Gabriel Lee, one of my grandsons, during his prekindergarten program last year. His great big eyes didn’t show one bit of hesitation or nervous energy. Standing in the front row of his class, confident, he took his bow after every single song. (The only one in the entire class who did so…) And this grandma cried.

Ah, the sweetest sounds (and smells) of Christmas…

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