The congregation my family attended while I was growing up had two services on Christmas Eve (an early service that was the Children’s Christmas Program and a late candlelight worship with Holy Communion) and one service on Christmas Day.
My family attended all of these.
Overdoing it? Perhaps. But what I now call the “Rock-around-the-clock-worship-till-you-drop-Christmas-marathon” culminated four weeks of Advent worship services on Wednesday evenings, in addition to Sunday morning services in which nary a Christmas carol was heard.
Advent hymns ruled the worship hour, though Christmas carols and hymns found their place in the many caroling parties and rehearsals for programs and services in which I and others would participate.
This high level of church life was just what we did. We were Lutherans, but more than that, we were Southern Lutherans.
Everybody we knew went to church (or to synagogue; there were almost as many Reformed Jews in our neighborhood as Southern Baptists), and most attended more often than we did.
My closest friends went to the same Lutheran church my family attended. We knew that we were Lutheran, and furthermore, we knew why we were Lutheran, on account of having to explain Lutheran teaching and practices to our non-Lutheran friends.
“Why don’t you sing Christmas carols in December?” (“We do,” I’d say, “just not during Advent.”)
“What is Advent?” (“It’s when we prepare for the Second Coming, and for Christmas,” I learned to explain.)
“Why do you have such strange ornaments on the tree in your church?” (“They’re chrismons, Christian symbols for Jesus, as the ornaments.”)
“Why do you only go to Wednesday night church a couple of times a year?” (That from Baptists who had Wednesday night church throughout the year. Lutherans were slackers!)
I grew up with those questions (along with the “Lutheran? Is that Christian?” queries) from curious neighbors and schoolmates who had never heard of my church.
The best religious instruction I received came from having to explain being Lutheran to others.
Being Lutheran at Christmas-time in the South meant that along with the ham, sweet potatoes, biscuits and redeye gravy one also had sauerkraut and really, REALLY hot horseradish (the kind that made my grandfather’s eyes water) and stinky Limburger cheese, spritz cookies, pfeffernusse, decorated gingerbread houses, kringle coffeecake and Black Forest cake.
It meant Christmas caroling as the youth choir, not only to the “shut-ins” and around the neighborhood of the congregation, but at the mall, at the bus depot and in the lobby of the big downtown department store with a sign with our congregation’s name and worship times and cards to hand out inviting people to check out the Lutherans, with the “Gospel in a Nutshell” printed on one side.
In fact, being Lutheran at Christmas meant singing, a lot of singing, whether one had a “good” voice or not.
We sang, in addition to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” those really wonderful carols that, much later, I learned were brought over from Germany (and unlike “Silent Night” didn’t make it into mainstream Christian hymnody): “Still, Still, Still,” and “O Come, Little Children” and my favorite, “God Loves Me Dearly.”
While this last song didn’t sound at all like a Christmas carol to my non-Lutheran friends (“But it talks about death!” they objected), it fit perfectly with our children’s programs that began, always, with the story of Adam and Eve falling into sin.
To be Lutheran meant telling the Christmas story, the WHOLE story, from the very beginning. It meant, and still means, telling the real reason for the season: that God had to act to save us from our sins, and that, in the words of another unlikely Christmas song from the South, “I Wonder as I Wander,” that “Jesus the Savior did come for to die.”
And so I sang, then and now, these words:
I was in bondage, sin, death and darkness;
God’s love was working to make me free.
Jesus my Savior himself did offer,
Jesus my Savior paid all I owe.
Therefore I’ll say again, God loves me dearly,
God loves me dearly, loves even me.
And that is, for me, the best Lutheran Christmas tradition: like the shepherds, telling others that the Savior has come for them, that they are free from what binds them in darkness and death. It bears repeating: God loves you dearly, even you.
A merry, blessed Christmas, ya’ll!
Erma Wolf is an ordained pastor seeking a call to an ELCA parish. She is also part of the adjunct faculty for the Institute of Lutheran Theology.