Electronically Serving Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, & Rosemead

Christmas Story

By Marijune Wissmann

In the little Northern Michigan town where I was raised, Christmas Day was a church day.  At nine in the morning we trudged through the snowdrifts to a small, wood frame church for one last choir practice and to rehearse the program for the afternoon.

Mr. Maki, our janitor, had been in the basement since six that morning firing up the ancient coal furnace, while we shivered upstairs.  The choir stood on heat vents in the floor trying to warm their toes and when they sang, icy breaths turned into a cold fog.  Mrs. Rasmussen, the organist, vigorously pumped the organ, until finally, a faint chord wheezed out.

Pastor was in good spirits. He had spent hours preparing his sermon. This was his opportunity to persuade the backsliders to return to the fold.  He was tall, blonde and handsome, clad in his vestments, which his wife had spent hours pressing that morning.  His congregation was very punctual and by 10:45 AM everyone had arrived.  He hurried through the liturgy and began his sermon.  Mom and Dad were late because they had to wait for Grandmother to finish her smoke. She hid in the basement behind the furnace for a last puff on her secret cigarette.  Everyone in the congregation knew where she was, but we went along with her silly charade.

The church was beginning to warm up; the heat from the furnace was doubled by the cooking stove in the basement where the church ladies were cooking the Christmas dinner.  Pastor was doing a fine job detailing the significance of this holiest of days and we tried to listen with rapt attention.  Drifting from the vents

came the most heavenly of aromas.  The “oven angels” in the basement were preparing roasted turkey, Christmas goose, baked hams, marinated venison, potato sausage, lutefisk, pickled herring, smoked Lake Superior trout, lingonberry sauce and sweet deserts.

Pastor’s sermon could not possibly rival such redolent competition.  He had actually moved as far away from the vents as he could. The heat from the furnace made him dab his brow as he announced it was time for communion.  As we knelt, hungry stomachs began to growl, we began to giggle as we opened our mouths for the sacred wafer. Finished, Pastor announced, “The Ladies Aid invites you all to partake of the Christmas dinner.”

Now it was everyone for himself. Teen-age boys bounded over the pews, racing for the back door while older folks managed to find the energy to quickstep down the stairs.  The basement was filled with tables covered with food.  Everything was made from scratch, nothing frozen, canned or made from a box.  Huge pitchers of creamy milk were placed at every table.  No one had heard of cholesterol.  The congregation ate two and three helpings, belts were moved a notch, not much conversation but the pleasure of enjoying good food.

The church ladies had decided to hold a bake sale so people could have “take homes”.  Wonderful saffron buns, rich cream pies, chewy brownies, cardamom seed rolls, gingerbread, frosted cakes and heavenly divinity fudge, appropriate for the occasion, were sold in twenty minutes.

It was time to go upstairs in the church for the choir concert and the children’s Christmas program.  My Dad and several of the men offered to do “clean up”. They spent an enjoyable afternoon, doing the dishes, munching on left overs and sipping schnapps.

As we climbed slowly up the slippery stairs, Mom was searching for Grandma who was sneaking another Lucky cigarette behind the furnace. Many older parishioners were assisted up the stairs.  We were all stuffed, our eyes were glazed, we were in a calorie coma.

The choir sang the beautiful carols and Hilda played her piano accordion.  She was a big girl and handled the heavy instrument with ease.  It was rumored that she played at a tavern on Saturday nights so her carols had a decided polka beat.  The little children formed a poetry choir and recited The Night Before Christmas.

Their droning and swaying had a hypnotic effect on the audience, like a lullaby.  Soon strange sounds came from the audience. Mrs. Peterson nodded and whistled, like a teakettle.  Mr. Salo gave out an unmistakable snore.  Pastor gave a short, benediction the congregation roused itself and slowly left the church.

Outside, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson walked quickly to their Packard. Mr. Johnson who owned the lumberyard looked grand in his black chesterfield, gray homburg hat with a silk scarf and black zippered galoshes.  Surprisingly Mrs. Johnson did not wear her new fur coat.  She had worn it in a snow shower last week and after a rank, wild musky odor filled the closet, she hung it on the clothesline and the neighborhood dogs came by to sniff this strange animal. Sam, the tailor, had made the coat from the pelts he bought from an itinerant trapper. Lydia did not want to discuss this latest addition to her wardrobe with anyone.

Parked next to the Johnson’s Packard was an old pick-up truck. Several young men, not wearing galoshes, did a slippery dance trying to push-start this old vehicle. They finally drove down the hill on their way to the skating rink for some broom hockey before the sun went down. We helped Pastor and his wife to load the leftover food into his car, which they delivered to the county home.  Grandma was sitting in the car with her Lucky Strike and Dad, his cheeks rosy, whistled as we drove into the wintry sunset.

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