Sometimes it’s a simple carol that rekindles warm memories of Christmas.
When I hear “Away in a Manger,” I remember my two children at ages 5 and 8, standing in front of church and loudly singing - at least during the first verse. The words always seemed to get garbled after that.
Nonetheless, their singing recalls for me the holy mystery of Bethlehem passed on from the mouths of babes and from those much older: Immanuel God is with us.
One such insight to the joy of Christmas was given to me recently by a woman in Hillsboro, Kan. Her story begins in fear and persecution and ends in hope and faith.
I pass it on so that you might consider what memories you have and what memories you may yet want to create.
When Marie Wiens hears the carol “Silent Night,” she always thinks of her first Christmas in this country and the joy she found even in poverty.
Before that Christmas, she had lived in Siberia, one of seven children of a Mennonite pastor and his wife. He had been serving other German-speaking Mennonites who had immigrated to Russia.
By 1929, thousands of Mennonites were fleeing the country because of communist persecution. Wiens, her four sisters and two brothers and their parents were among the last to escape.
For a year, they stayed in China, waiting for an opportunity to come to the United States. But U.S. policy, Wiens said, limited the number of immigrants because of the Depression.
“They didn’t want penniless refugees,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mennonite groups in America were raising money to help those desperately trying to get here. Soon after, small groups of Mennonites were allowed into the country, including Wiens and her family. They settled in Reedley, Calif.
“We were so poor that we were living off the clothing and the food that people gave us,” Wiens said. “We lived in one of the poorest of houses, but we didn’t know how bad it was because we were free.”
Christmas in Russia usually meant gifts of knitted mittens or stockings and some candy and apples. But for her first Christmas in California, said Wiens, there would be no traditional gifts. Her father was too poor.
Nonetheless, Wiens’ father was determined to give his children something. On Christmas Day, Wiens was the first to find the simple gifts her father had collected for his children: a 50-cent coin for each child, along with some peanut brittle.
“It’s one Christmas I remember vividly,” she said.
To complete the joy of the day, family members all went to church, where they sang the hymns they loved, including “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”).
“It is one of the most beautiful,” she said.
And it’s one that she will sing again this Christmas with her family.
Each holiday, Marie Wiens and her husband, Frank, gather at a motel (“No one has to work or cook or make beds,” she said) with their four children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren to catch up on family matters, to reminisce about Christmases past and to continue new family traditions.
Those traditions, Wiens said, include reciting in unison the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke, singing a few carols, including “Silent Night” (“That’s one of our favorites”) and strengthening ties that for Wiens go back more than 65 years to Siberia.
“We try to stress the importance of just being together,” she said. “We keep the closeness.”
Keeping the closeness.
Many of us will be rushing about in these last hours to complete our shopping or to finish cooking for our festive meals. Others will be facing the holidays alone.
Whether we’re with family or alone, keeping the closeness ultimately means we are not alone.
The song we sing this Christmas and for Christmases to come can be the same: Immanuel God is with us.