Montour County Christmas Memories
Rewriting the article on early Christmases last week brought to mind one of the wishes that all genealogists have: that our ancestors would have kept better records, especially of their every day life experiences. Actually, that was the impetus for the Hagenbuch site – to record our relatives’ history and stories so that we and future generations can enjoy and learn from them. So, in that vein I thought I would write some of what I remember about Christmas from when I was about 6 years old (1959).
We lived on a farm between Washingtonville and Limestoneville, Pennsylvania. Looking back, it was a great life with a balance of work and play. Winter snows, as most folks my age will tell you, seemed deeper and colder. Never receiving many gifts throughout the year, Christmas was quite special, and I remember receiving a play gas station, a working microscope, a gun like Steve McQueen carried in Wanted: Dead or Alive, and pajamas with fire trucks on them (sister Barb was working at a clothing mill where I believe she got them). I received a book from my Grandma Hagenbuch in 1959 – Ship’s Dog – which I still have (signed and dated by her). We always had a real tree with decorations that were kept in a space under the couch during the rest of the year. I wish I had those vintage decorations!
The Sunday before Christmas, at Oak Grove Lutheran Church where most of my immediate Hagenbuch relatives attended, we had a children’s program. Every child (maybe numbering 15 to 20 at that time) had a piece to recite, usually a Bible verse of the Christmas story, and we sang several songs. It was about the only time one would actually see the folks in the congregation (especially the older ones) smile as we children lisped and stumbled through our recitations.
You see, Oak Grove is what I have always called a strict German Lutheran church. Church was serious, not necessarily a joyful experience! But on that Sunday those elderly Hagenbuch hearts melted a bit, probably taking them back to their own childhood when life was simpler with fewer worries. I also remember receiving two gifts in Sunday School – a cardboard box of chocolates and an orange. The chocolates were usually cream filled and not very tasty, but it was still candy, something we didn’t get on a regular basis. As for the orange, I was never a big fruit lover. So, I was indifferent to the orange.
Christmas Eve is etched in my memory. Unlike any other evening of the year, we would stay up to go to candlelight services at Oak Grove. I distinctly remember getting in the car about 10:30 PM and traveling in our 1955 Belair Chevy over the frozen dirt roads to the service. It was always cold and car heaters didn’t seem to work as well then as they do today. I looked out the window in the back seat, squeezed between my brother Bob and David, Dad and Mom in the front seat.
By 1959 my sister Barb was probably off with a boyfriend that evening. If she was along, then she was in the back seat with my brothers and I was squeezed between Mom and Dad in the front seat. As I looked out the window at the stars, Mom would always pick out the brightest star and exclaim, “There it is, the star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men to the baby Jesus. See it?”
I was always a deeply imaginative and religious young fellow, so the Nativity story became even more alive to me thanks to my mother. But I was also thinking of Santa Claus and wondering where he was on his journey. Because along with having a child’s faith in the Christmas story, I also had the strong belief in Santa and the reindeer. Isn’t it amazing how children can meld those two beliefs together so they both make sense and come alive?
For Christmas Eve services, Oak Grove was decorated with pine boughs wrapped around tall candle stands attached to the ends of each pew. Again, I distinctly remember these and knew that Dad’s first cousin Cyrus had made them. Cyrus was always the custodian and maintenance man of the church. The candle stands had large white candles in them and, upon entering the church, Pastor Stahl or one of the men of the church (all cousins) would hand us the standard square piece of cardboard with an X cut in it and a small white candle. This was the special part of the midnight service we all looked forward to; and the service was like no other during the rest of the church year.
Instead of the usual three hymns that were sung, there were at least 8 hymns – all were Christmas songs and were sung loudly by the congregation while played on the organ by cousin Jean. Pastor Stahl would read the lessons, the most important one being from the book of Luke. For several years, certainly in 1959, adults in the congregation would reenact the Nativity. I remember relatives dressed as shepherds and the Wise Men – Clyde, Tillman, Donnie and Jim. Another was dressed as Joseph, and one of my father’s lady cousins portrayed Mary. Several others – Arlene, Grace, and Helen – were angels.
Finally, the magic moment arrived, and a hush fell over the congregation. Two of the men would begin at the front, one on either side of the aisle, and light the candle of the first person in each pew. The flame was transferred from person to person. Immediately before this, Cyrus had lit the large candles attached to the pew ends. Then, the singing of “Silent Night” would begin. Talk about being etched in my memory! My brother David and I would have our lit candles with the cardboard square over top of our hands. But, we didn’t hold the candles straight (as Dad had ordered us to right before they were lit!).
No, we tilted them this way and that so the melted wax would slide down the candle and somehow seep through the X in the cardboard to solidify around our fingers underneath. Little by little a wax buildup would form around our fingers until the final chords of “Silent Night” were struck and Dad ordered us to blow out the candles. We would stand with hardened wax around our hands, hidden by the piece of cardboard as the final song was trilled – “Joy to the World.” As we left the pew, we dropped what was left of the candle and the piece of cardboard in a box (to be used next year) and there it was – the wax hand! That was true joy – boyhood fun.
After the greetings of Merry Christmas to one and all (grandparents, great aunts and uncles, aunts and uncles, cousins, and the two people who were not related – Pastor and Mrs. Stahl!), we were back in the cold Chevy, heading to the farm to jump into our cold beds. I tried to sleep through the noises I heard on the roof – Santa’s sleigh, of course. I truly believed that I could hear that sleigh.
As for other memories, I remember some of the gifts I received on Christmas morning but the opening of the gifts and Christmas dinner all seem a blur. Of course, before we could open gifts, we were up at 4:30 AM to milk the cows and do the barn work. But, I truly do not remember much of the actual Christmas days back then. It’s the Christmas Eves at Oak Grove that are the strongest memories – the cold, the songs, the living Nativity, the reading of Luke, and the hot candle wax!
What do you remember about the Christmases long ago at Oak Grove or with your branches of the Hagenbuch family?