The organist, who teases the ivories with more enthusiasm than accuracy, begins the first few notes of Silent Night.Â Voicesâ€¦young, old, loud, soft, good, and badâ€¦ join in with a sweet sentiment the rest of the year lacks.
Iâ€™m sitting in my childhood church surrounded by people Iâ€™ve known seemingly forever, and I canâ€™t finish the first verse of Silent Night. Or the second, or the third. Â Every time I try I sense my grandmotherâ€™s spirit next to me, I smell the lemon drops in her pocket, and I feel the soft wool of her ancient black coat brushing against my arm. Â Silent Night was not only her favorite Christmas song, but my motherâ€™s as well, and it hurts that I will never hear their voices again.Â The emotions of loss pull so hard that I have to stop, swallow back tears, and be silent too.
My great-grandfather started the Giese Immanuel Lutheran church somewhere around 1905, I believe. Â He uprooted his young family from fertile North Dakota farmland and made the laborious journey east by horse and wagon. Â Grandma told me of the hardships, the work, Â the booms and the busts.Â But her father never waivered from his vision.Â He started a general store, a post office, and of course, a church where family and community could gather.
I myself was baptized in that church, attended Sunday school, squirmed on the hard wooden pews when sermons seemed like endless blah-blah-blah torture instead of inspirational messages, took confirmation classes, and attended countless potluck meals in the dank, coffee-scented, church basement.
Now, firmly entrenched in adulthoodâ€”and then some!â€”my husband and I mostly come back for Christmas Eve services as well as the occasional wedding and funeral.Â While the reason for coming back to this small country church changes, the feeling that I am a part of something unique and special does not. Â My family heritage is in each lemon oil-polished board, pew, and rail.Â I feel like I straddle the past and the present when I hold the thick red hymnal with the yellowing pages in my hands, and my being fills with love.
Grandma always spoke in German when she didnâ€™t want me to know what she was saying, or when she was reaching back into her own childhood memories.Â Even now, in 2012, the Giese church ministers sing Silent Night in German before asking the congregation to join in for the English version.Â I try to sing, to honor Grandma and Mom, but canâ€™t do it.
In my silence I listen for them. As the congregation lifts their voices on a cold Minnesota night, I take comfort from the echoes of Christmases past.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schlÃ¤ft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!