A very Mennonite Christmas
By Laureen F. Guenther
Albert and Tena Guenther of Saskatoon grew up in the 1940s and 1950s on family farms just north of the city, with large extended families nearby. Their families attended traditional Mennonite churches, but the children attended local English-speaking schools.
At school, in the weeks before Christmas, Tena remembers, they’d push back the desks, build a stage, and perform a Christmas play, often centering on the nativity. They also did lots of singing.
Mary Rempel of Airdrie, Alberta, grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, on a colony of Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico, where her parents had migrated from Canada. “It was a complete Mennonite community,” she says. “We lived a very simple, isolated life from other people in the world.” She and her siblings attended the colony’s Low German-speaking school, and the family attended the colony’s Low German-speaking church.
In school leading up to Christmas, Mary says, they memorized lots of Scripture and songs, which they recited and sang in school, and later performed for their grandparents on Christmas Day. Mary remembers they prepared for Christmas by making their home especially clean and tidy. “A lot of baking went on,” she says. “That was a real specialty.” They baked many kinds of cookies, sweet rolls and dinner rolls. Klingel, a pastry formed into a braid, was baked specially for Christmas.
In church, Mary says, pre-Christmas services were “plain”. The church had no music because “That was considered worldly and we were not of the world,” she says. “It was preached that we were celebrating the birth of Christ. Beyond that, very usual as throughout the year.”
Tena’s and Albert’s churches didn’t have special Christmas events either, partly because Saskatchewan winters made horse-and-sleigh travel unpredictable.
All three families celebrated three days of Christmas. Translated from Low German, they were called First Holiday, Second Holiday (Christmas Day), and Third Holiday.
On the evening of the First Holiday, the children set out large bowls, one per child. Albert remembers choosing “the biggest he could find.” That was important because, when they woke up on Christmas morning, their non-wrapped gifts from their parents were in those bowls.
“We would get a new dress, a new set of clothing for Christmas, if at all possible, because our family was poor,” Mary says. Their mother handmade all their clothes. “That was a real specialty to get new clothing to wear for Christmas to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.”
Mary sometimes got toys too, like a doll and doll buggy, toy dishes, a tea set and a toy stove, indicating significant sacrifice for her poverty-strapped parents.
Tena too remembers that she and her siblings also received clothes their mother made. The girls might also receive a doll, and the boys something like a toy horse. Albert remembers one year he received a Meccano set. Every year, his grandparents also gave each grandchild a pencil and a scribbler. Santa Claus didn’t figure into any of their celebrations. After opening gifts, they did the usual farm chores. Then Tena and Albert sometimes had big Christmas meals at home. They ate potatoes, other vegetables, and homegrown pork, but no turkey. Albert says there was probably cured ham or sausage, because his dad did his own butchering, curing and smoking.
Then all the families went off to their grandparents. For Mary, that meant traveling one to three hours by horse and buggy. “My uncles and aunts and umpteen cousins also converged on my paternal grandparents,” Albert says.
“That was always a highlight of Christmas,” Mary says. “We would all go to our grandparents. It was always exciting to see all our cousins. We were big families and that was the most exciting time of the year for us.”
Mary remembers the big Christmas meal at her grandparents. Sometimes there was turkey, but there was also chicken or beef, potatoes and other vegetables. They also had many soups: vegetable, chicken noodle, summer borscht, cabbage borscht, carrot and a special green bean soup.
Before and after meals, Tena remembers that her family sat and visited and sang German songs.
“I guess the most important part (of Christmas) was we ended up at my grandparents’,” Albert says, “and we got to see umpteen cousins.”
For Tena, the most important part of Christmas was “Jesus Christ was born.”