Saturday, December 22, 2007

Children's Midnight Service

[Sunday Scribblings prompts us to write about Holiday Memories this week. My family grew up celebrating both Christian and Jewish holidays - this particular memory is about a Christmas celebration.]

Once upon a time, the Presbyterian Church in my hometown held an annual midnight service on Christmas Eve. The junior choir and other children played a big part in the service, which changed from year to year. When I was 5 years old, I had learned and then sang "Away in a Manger" at that service, standing at the edge of what I always thought of as the "stage" in the sanctuary of the old church.

That church building was one of the oldest buildings in town, and sometime before I was 9 a new Presbyterian Church building was erected and the congregation moved in. The new church sat uphill from the road and had a curved driveway. For the midnight service, teams of hard-working people made and set out flickering candle luminaries to line the driveway and parking lots and walkways. It was gorgeous and magical.

The sanctuary had an open, wood-lined, curved roof. A very large Christmas tree filled the space behind the altar. It had simple decorations and some white lights on it. It went up after Thanksgiving and stayed up through December.

I have always loved singing and I was a member of the junior choir. The year I was 10 a few other people in the junior choir were also my age - no one was older. One classmate was Tall M and another was MM. There were younger kids in the choir, including my younger brother who would have been almost 8. Mrs. R, mother of Tall M, was the choir director and pianist.

For weeks and weeks, we had been working on music for the service. In fact, other than the choir director, the whole thing was do be done by the kids. The minister would introduce us then he would sit with the congregation. MM was to be the narrator - the story told by him and also through songs the junior choir would sing. MM was very nervous, but we knew he would be OK. The choir would sit in three pews across the front, where the altar normally was. MM would speak from the pulpit (stage right), and Mrs. R would be at the piano (down stage left).

Now my mom is queen of common sense. She insisted that after we ate dinner on Christmas Eve, that we go to bed and take a nap. She later woke us and got us dressed in our holiday finery (a velvet dress for me that year) and got us to the church in plenty of time for the performance. On top of our holiday clothes, we wore choir robes. We looked great. And if some of the kids were more tired than my brother and me, well, it wasn't something that 10-year-old me would have noticed.

The time came to start and we each held a lit candle in one hand, with the music books we were to use in the other. It isn't a large church, but it was packed full and we were so excited as we sang our way down the aisle to our places down front. The younger kids were toward Mrs. R's end of things and us "older" kids were further away. I was right next to Tall M.

The service began, MM narrating the story from the pulpit. We blew out our candles and put them down at our feet and opened our music books. We sang our little hearts out and were having the time of our lives. Well, MM was probably still a bit nervous.

Then something unexpected happened. Instead of starting the next song, Mrs. R held out her hand to my younger brother and he went to her. She then rose from the piano bench and led my brother toward the back of the church along the far aisle. My mom met her part way, and Mom tells me that Mrs. R whispered, "He's sick." Mom led my brother out of the sanctuary to the nearest bathroom (which happened to be the men's room) so that he could throw up there. Mrs. R returned to the piano and we continued with the program.

I think we sang one more song, and had started the next, when suddenly Tall M sat down very hard in the pew next to me. Before I could react, the pew tipped over backwards from his weight and as he rolled a bit Tall M shook the huge Christmas tree we'd been seated in front of. As the tree swayed, my dad, who was a doctor, came to the front to check on Tall M. Mrs. R, very pale by now, motioned us all to sit, and those of us in the middle righted the pew Tall M had knocked over (since he was now lying on the floor behind us).

Turns out Tall M had just fainted. Two pieces of good news - he wasn't hurt and the Christmas tree didn't fall over.

So there mom is, in the men's room, caring for my younger brother. She's cleaning him up when she hears the door open. Mom spoke to make sure the fellow knew she was in there with her son. The man who came in told her that was OK, he was just there to get a wet cloth for the kid who had just passed out!

I have heard the term "dropping like flies" used to describe this point in the evening, but to tell the truth, the excitement was, by then, all over.

The rest of the service was finished with all of us except MM seated. I believe that both my younger brother and Tall M joined us by the end. We were not allowed to relight our candles (someone deciding that we just shouldn’t risk it), and the evening finished a success.

But for many, many years thereafter, the children's performances on Christmas Eve at that church were held much, much earlier in the evening. Midnight services were reserved for adults only. It might even be that way to this day.


kenju said...

Michele sent me, Sister AE. I have always thought that midnight services should be limited to those old enough to stay up that late. Very few youngsters can. So when did you become Jewish?

Robin said...

I've always wondered how children stayed up for midnight mass... That service is the stuff memories are made of for sure.

Linda said...

So well written! I was right there in that church and almost felt a bit sick! Great story!

sister AE said...

Hi, Kenju. I spent much of my adolescence trying to figure out my take on religion. By the time I was in college, I figured Judaism was a better fit for me.

Hello, Robin.

Thanks, Linda. I think we were lucky no one got hurt, but it does make for a good story.

TheVasquez3 said...

i am always amazed about what i learn reading peoples blogs.

great Sunday Scribbling!

sister AE said...

Hello, Vasquez3. I'm glad you enjoyed this. And I'm glad there is so much out there for us to learn.

paisley said...

great memory,, glad its ok to laugh at it now!!!!!

merry christmas....

sister AE said...

Thanks, Paisley. We've laughed at this for years!

susan said...

Good storytelling. Enjoyed this.

Becca said...

What a great story! I would definitely have been the one getting sick - had terrible stage fright as a child.

Incidentally, my church (Presbyterian) has two services on Christmas eve - one for children at 5:00, and the other at 10:00 for adults. Perhaps there is a story like yours in the church's history??

sister AE said...

Thanks, Susan. I admit I have been practicing this one aloud for years.

Hello, Becca. Thanks, and I wouldn't be surprised.

gautami tripathy said...

What a post! Liked it!

sister AE said...

Thanks, Gautami.

tumblewords said...

Great story - now. Imagine it wasn't so great at the time, although it sounded like everyone handled it well! Enjoyed reading this!

sister AE said...

Thanks, tumblewords.