Muffled coughs punctuated the sounds of shuffling feet and rustling coats. Parishioners greeted each other with hardy back slaps or demure head nods. “Merry Christmas!” was voiced in tones of happy to robotic, yet everyone seemed caught in the celebratory mood. My husband and I stepped in line behind an elderly lady having a difficult time deciding on which pew would give her the best view of the church program. We waited and did our best to zig during her zags. She eventually made her selection and settled herself like a hen on a nest. We side-stepped into the pew behind her. As I took off my coat and glanced around the small rural church I felt a rush of memories hit my senses. This was the church of my youth, a place of beginnings and endings, a place of lemon drops and anguished attention.
The smells were the same: varnished wood lovingly polished clean of all sins, the scent of endless sermons, whispered prayers, and an aging congregation. I reached forward and pulled the hymnal out. The heft and print remained the same as it has always been—hundreds of songs and verses steeped in heavy German sternness. This was, and is, a conservative Lutheran church with no room for lively uplifting music. I was relieved to see there would be two familiar Christmas songs on this night: Hark the Harold Angels Sing and Silent Night.
Silent Night has become a tricky song for me. I love it, but it was my grandmother’s and my mother’s favorite Christmas song. They are both gone now, and sitting in this church amplifies their loss. Sometimes when I start to sing the words, “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright,” I choke on my rising emotions and must stop. Usually I don’t even attempt to join in knowing how I will react. As I eye the hymnal my husband understands and gives my hand a squeeze. I take a breath and look up at the lights. They are different now than in my girlhood—more modern—less fussy. I remember the milk-glass of those early lights clearly. The glass was shaped in a long decorative column and looked very formal-churchy. Black chains held the fixtures hostage from the wooden ceiling. I wondered why they never moved even the tiniest bit for surely the chains would swing if properly motivated by an errant breeze or the minister’s long-winded preaching. Anyway, back then, they gave me something to study when the sermons reached numbing stages.
Staring at the ceiling reminds me that back when I was a child Grandma always kept a stash of lemon drops in her “Sunday coat,” and she was willing to share. Sitting in the pew on Dec. 24, 2011, I could feel her conspiratorial nod and smile touching my memories. Those days were precious, but I was too young to realize how much I would miss them. I’m brought back to the present as the lights dim and the program begins. The story of Jesus’ birth unfolds as the adult choir bolsters the children’s recitations. Surely it was only yesterday that I was stammering my way through the required memorized verses, but no, that was long ago. I watch the youngest children wiggle and giggle and squirm as they wait for their turn to speak. Been there! Proud parents frown or wave from the safety of distant pews. Done that! After almost ninety minutes the program concludes. The last song will be Silent Night. My husband leans in to me for comfort. I start to sing tentatively and low. To my surprise this time, on this night, I don’t stop after the first few words. I feel calm, as if my loved ones are next to me. Their voices strengthen mine, and just for a moment a tiny whiff of lemon drop scents the air. My husband looks at me with curiosity, and I keep going. “…sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace…”