Posted by: deadmousediaries | December 25, 2016

A Richmond Furnace Christmas Memory

I often wonder how many baby boomers like me remember being part of a children’s program in a little country church somewhere at Christmastime. I love the feeling those memories stir up in me.

My special Christmas program was held at my grandmother’s church in little train stop called Richmond Furnace. I attended with my cousins, only for the Christmas program, but decades before that, my grandma had herded my dad and his seven siblings down the family’s long dirt lane and off to services on countless Sunday mornings. In those days, Grandma and Pappy’s little white church drew folks from up and down our valley for hymn sings and oyster suppers. The church never had running water but  it was no great hardship; when it was built, everyone led lives of “making do.”

By the time I came along, services were held just one Sunday night a month when the minister from the church in the little town nearby would extend a visit. The church and the congregation were well aged by then and the whole crowd of a dozen or so people would wait patiently below the single light bulb on the church doorstep until the designated caretaker brought the key to let everyone inside.

One night a year, in December, the pews would fill again and all this little church had ever been wrapped her arms around her loyal congregation and their offspring as we gathered for the Christmas service. This special Sunday also drew my other grandparents to this church for a holiday tradition, the night that I would say my Christmas piece.

Recitation was the word teachers used in school when we had to memorize a poem or quote a few lines from a story but that’s a hard word for five-year-olds to form. At Grandma’s church, a poem you worked so hard to memorize was simply called your Christmas piece. Beginning in early December, my mother oversaw the learning of it and my dad endured the countless practice runs.

The church pews were well dotted with visitors on program night and it was years before I came to realize that all of us children were not related. I always thought “The Bricker Girls” who joined us were just two more distant cousins who I only saw one time a year. In truth, the connecting thread was the church itself and it called us all back that time of year just like a family reunion.

Long before we would crunch across the gravel parking lot in our ’41 Chevy coupe, a faithful volunteer would have been busy at the church, firing up the coal furnace and setting out the Christmas greenery. The little tree always wore two strands of multi-colored lights and a mismatched collection of glass ornaments. How any of that had survived a thousand curious fingers of all the other children’s programs was a Christmas miracle all its own.

There were usually ten or so of us children, maybe a dozen, who waited not-so-patiently for our turn to shine. No matter how short the service or how moving the minister’s message, we squirmed and fidgeted, mouthing the words to our own Christmas piece one last time before we’d be called up from the pew.

When our big moments came, we would each be announced to take our places behind the altar railing. Just one step up put us at the center of the universe in that sprawl of loving faces. I remember pinching the fabric of new Christmas dresses and swishing my crinolines from side to side as part of my nervous ritual. My words always flew out at lightning speed so I would not have time to forget my piece. No amount of consolation could outweigh the shame of being prompted by your mother or worse yet, being coaxed back to your seat if your mind went completely blank.

In truth, the real excitement of the entire night never set in for me until the program was over.  As families filed to the back of the church, my aunt would turn on the lights in the Sunday School room. Behind the partition was the thing a thing of great amazement, the old pump organ.

In my first memories, I only got to listen and I watched fascinated as my mother or my aunt pumped air through the bellows and brought the 0ld organ back to life.  Later I was allowed to play whatever simple tune I was learning at Miss Dixon’s while my aunt worked the treadle.  As I grew taller and put more piano lessons behind me, I was able both to pedal and to play.

While the organ huffed and wheezed, I would do my best to make my daddy proud as I coaxed out my latest rendition of Little Drummer Boy from the yellowed keys. For me, the treadling was a novelty that required complete concentration.  For the little church, I suspect it was the comfortable return of a familiar heartbeat once again. That part of the evening was never long enough.

At the end of the night, I would be buttoned, tied and wrapped in wool far too long before my parents said their final goodbyes to family and the December cold hit us again. As we stepped out into the winter night, a bright and dimpled orange and small cardboard box with a handle made of string would be passed into each child’s waiting hand. Little fingers poked around the hard candy ribbons and pushed aside the sour balls in search of the one or two creamy buttons of chocolate that would also be inside.

As I remember it, it was always snowing when we stepped back into the darkness, a perfect ending to a child’s perfect night. The church bell and the candlelight, the tiny cedar tree and the fresh pine on the window sills all blended one night a year into indelible childhood magic. Even now, more than 50 years later, the old carols don’t reach the place in me that those untrained voices touched when they melted together in my grandma’s church. I can conjure up those images without the slightest hesitation. They were glorious traditions that still anchor one corner of my clearest Christmas memories.

I remember how safe and constant those days seemed as a kid, days when my parents and grandparents were the center of my universe. I don’t know when I decided I was too old to be part of the children’s Christmas program but at the time, I know I couldn’t wait to grow up. I wanted to wear lipstick and high heels and be one of the big kids who were excused from that annual ritual. Even though I recognized that  I was changing, I never gave a thought to the idea that things around me would change, too. I had faced no losses and had no experience in knowing that time would eventually unravel all my most familiar comforts.  I didn’t know it then but I was living in a state of suspended bliss, a feeling that will always be entwined with my memories of that church.

About 20 years ago the church was sold and the contents sent to auction. My husband bought me two ancient wooden folding chairs from the children’s classroom and I gave my dad one as the perfect Christmas present. It made me smile. I love to think that decades before that, he had been sitting on that same chair, squirming and fidgeting, learning his Christmas piece.

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Responses

  1. That is lovely.

    • Thank you! I hope it brought back some warm Christmas feelings for you.

  2. It gave me warm fuzzies as I read it. Wishing you peace, blessings and joy. Merry Christmas!!!


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