A Country Church Christmas

It’s the morning after Christmas and from the comfort of my bed where I have decided to remain watching “Julie and Julia” and drinking coffee out of my favorite snowman cup, I can see (and hear) my dearly beloved practicing the D chord on the new “used” guitar I collaborated and schemed and finagled to buy him this Christmas.

And I am gathering he liked the surprise, because the first thing he said to me this morning as I rolled over and let him know that I am not getting up any time soon is:

“Good morning. Good to see you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go learn to play guitar today.”

So he’s working on it. And the thing about husband is, he probably will learn how to play guitar today. I have been practicing and playing guitar since I was twelve years old and husband will more than likely swoop in with a mission and learn to play “Stairway to Heaven” in a couple weeks.

Better than me.

Because I can’t play “Stairway to Heaven.”

Husband is good at everything.

Which drives me crazy, but comes in handy mostly.

Anyway, here I am this Sunday morning surrounded by unwrapped gifts and ribbon and leftovers and dishes, still under the covers in my little cabin in the North Dakota hills listening to husband take his first steps on the way to rock star status and I am thinking, this movie and coffee and private concert in bed in the morning should become an after Christmas tradition.

And I think I can arrange that.

Because I have had some practice at maintaining traditions this Christmas season, and, if I do say so myself, we did it proud this year.

As you know this little house has been around. My grandpa built it and my dad and his family have celebrated many Christmases between the walls. When I was growing up, my cousins and aunts and uncles gathered around the Christmas tree in our “Beef, it’s What’s for Dinner” sweatshirts (our gramma was a member of the Cattlewomen Association and felt her grandchildren should advertise the cause) and performed carols and put on plays on Christmas Eve and then dressed in our best and headed out to the little country church down the road for the candlelight service.

Evidence, I must always provide evidence. That's me on the right being held against my will by my oldest cousin. My sister and my other cousin to the left of me, thrilled about our matching outfits.

And as we grew a little older and time took people away and changed our world like it often does, the tradition of Christmas Eve spent in this house for my family continued.  After my grandmother died, my other grandparents from eastern North Dakota would move in for the season to ring in the holiday at the ranch. And they brought with them their own tradition of pancakes and gifts before church.

It was always cozy. It was always magical. It was always sweet and syrupy with the smell of cedar and cinnamon candles and hot coffee.

And there was always a trip through the starry, crisp and sparkling landscape to our little country church.

So that is how husband and I hosted Christmas Eve this year. With blueberry waffles and bacon and my homemade chokecherry jelly and gifts and laughter and photos by the Christmas tree (sans beef shirts.)

Me, cookn' the bacon. Yeah, sometimes I chip in with the parts of the meal that don't involve mixed drinks and wine.

Then we left it all to be cleaned up later as we piled in the car and let our headlights cut through the foggy, frosty night and take us the 35 miles to the little white church on the hill that was waiting for us with lights on.

Our drive to church wasn’t always this long. See, we used to attend services only five miles north of our home in a tiny little country church in the middle of a field called “Faith Lutheran.” This is where my sisters and I, along with the neighborhood farm kids within a 25-mile radius, took Sunday school lessons from my pops. And during the Christmas season, pops would put together a list of hymns that he knew and could realistically be played on the guitar and we would sing “Go tell it on the mountain,” “Away in the manger,” and “Winds through the olive trees,” loud and angelically in our red and green sweaters, hair combed and hands at our sides.

Then, in the grand finale, we would light each other’s candles and hold them steady, peacefully, prayerfully, as we sang “Silent Night,” to sweet baby Jesus on the eve of his birth.

And I like to imagine the crowd of eight families who filled that tiny church wall to wall had tears in their eyes at the beauty and innocence of it all…

But, sadly, the voices of little ones will no longer fill the Christmas Eve air out on the prairie where our little Faith Lutheran church stands. Because, without sounding too dramatic, the changing landscape of rural America has finally made its way to our little corner of the world as many young families choose to make their homes in town and family farms are left to be worked on the weekends.  The population of the congregation of that tiny church has dwindled and tapered off to the point of no return and Faith Lutheran, home to my first Christmas song solo, closed its doors for good this summer.

Leaving behind only one country church in our community, about 35 miles north of our ranch. First Lutheran Church, the last of its kind, still stands proud and tall on the rolling landscape, surrounded by wheat fields and oil wells and farmyards and cattle, and continues to welcome the family members of those who founded the place of worship, those who dug its foundation and built its steeple.

And I am one of those relatives, because, as pops reminds us each time we pull onto the gravel road that leads to its door, he helped build that steeple–the one that reaches toward the heavens…you know way up there, almost to the clouds. Yup, he did that, all the while overcoming his horrifying feelings toward heights.

Yup, pops helped build that steeple. So under that steeple we walked through the doors on Christmas Eve, hand in hand, side by side with those we love.

And we hugged neighbors and classmates we haven’t seen for years. We straightened out our holiday scarves and smoothed our dresses and talked about new babies and Christmas dinners and as the pastor stood before us, our chatter silenced and Christmas Eve candlelight service began.

And it opened with gusto as a neighborhood boy played “Good King Wenceslas” on his saxophone, cheeks rosy, shirt pressed and tucked into his blue Wranglers and belt buckle. I admit I might have welled up a bit as I remembered our humble Christmas concerts with guitar accompanist and wondered where all the children have gone.

And noticed that this church with the steeple wasn’t bursting at the seams with families squished in pews, sharing hymnals.

But that didn’t stop their voices, no matter the number, from filling the air with the music I remembered singing shoulder to shoulder with the kids who shared my landscape, called the little church out on the prairie theirs and grew and learned under the same remote sky.

So I sang the melody to  “Oh little town of Bethlehem,” as my pops’ voice sang the base. I listened to the greeting and looked down the pew to my little sister as she sang from memory “Go tell it on the mountain.” I smiled at the little neighbor kid, who wasn’t so little anymore and we sang together “Away in the manger,” just like we used to.

And then the sermon, the offering, the prayer and, with the lights turned low, in a chain reaction, we lit one another’s candles and sang over our flickering lights “Silent Night.”

And there was that magic again.

There it was. I have felt the same way every Christmas Eve since I could first form a memory.

My voice a little stronger, a little louder, my father’s voice a little more weathered, my little sister a bit taller, my momma a grandmother now.

But there we all stood, side by side, under that steeple, remembering our little church, thankful for this one, thankful for family, thankful for our place in this world.

Thankful for a tradition, that, no matter the time, the roof or the steeple we worship under, the family that had to leave us, or the friends and babies we welcome with open arms, we keep.

We keep and celebrate…

…and remember.

And maybe someday soon, husband will be performing his own rendition of “Joy to the World,” at church on Christmas Eve.

I am sure of it.

4 thoughts on “A Country Church Christmas

  1. Maybe with the oil activity out West it can draw in long term people that can fill the local churches like days past.. Merry Christmas and only the best in 2011. Rich…….

  2. Is this church in Tobacco Garden or Garden Prairie? I know I’ve been in it, but, can’t place it offhand. And, your Christmas Eve sounds like ours–lots of carols, me with a broken toe after tripping over our dog (but I still got my shoes on and processed down the aisle). This is a special time of year and because we have no family nearby but our son, we only enjoy the church part. I got a grand piano 10 years ago so we haven’t had a tree for lack of room. You all look happy and healthy and whoever the dentist is in WC is doing a great job on those smiles. K

  3. We attended church w/ my folks in Kenmare, ND( Nazareth Lutheran)..Our church there looks grander than some of them fancy Catholic ones but at one time, there use to be 4-5 little lutheran churches out in the country..I think many of them are still used but more for special occasions like weddings and funerals…just love those little churches on the prairie. Here I am singiing the First Noel, and Silent Night as well loving those songs cuz Christmas Eve is also my b’day. My sis’ middle name is Noel..not born near Christmas but it shoulda been my middle name but goes w/ Nancy much better..so they thought. On to the next holiday.
    I think I need to borrow ur back yard and some snow shoes to lose some pounds the goot ‘ole carbs/sweets I’ve been eating..Hugs. Nicole

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