A month ago I enjoyed a church dinner in the gymnasium of the grade school I attended 50 years ago. Back then, the gym sparkled with newness because, like the school itself, it was brand new, finished just weeks before I reported to the first grade as an equally new student.
Over the ensuing half-century the school had been extensively remodeled but the gym had changed little. Roll-out, three-row wooden bleachers still lined the long walls of the same basketball court we were permitted to use only if it rained during recess.
A raised, curtained stage anchored the court’s south end while the north wall held four doors and the original scoreboard.
The gym, then as now, served many purposes: athletic facility, auditorium, wedding hall, dining room, playground and, on occasion, church.
Since German Lutherans are incapable of doing anything social without coffee and a light lunch of, say, roast beef, mashed potatoes, two vegetables, red Jell-O salad and either pie, cake or both, a kitchen was placed off one corner of the gym so hot lunches could be served to the schoolchildren and dinners to groups dining al fresco al gymnasio.
Back then the biggest event in the big room was the Christmas school program. At 7 p.m. every Christmas Eve, 180 or so of us smartly-dressed little angels paraded into the gym to perform a lengthy, sometimes off-key line-up of Christmas hymns and Scripture readings for a standing-room-only crowd of proud parents and grandparents.
While our singing and recitations may have not have been perfect, it wasn’t from lack of practice. We marched and recited and sang for weeks in our classrooms and the gym because every word said or sung in both English and German had to be memorized. Well, mostly. About the eighth grade or so Oh Tannenbaum finally took root. Or was it Schnitzelbank?
The week before the program Walter Voss, the school’s janitor, slowly and methodically filled the gym with an ocean of steel folding chairs. The sea of institutional brown was parted only by a middle channel where we would pass through to the Promised Land, er, our assigned seats in the bleachers.
The big show began with the gym darkened for dramatic effect. That was our cue to stop our hallway yipping and begin to remember the words of Lift Up Ye Heads Ye Mighty Gates to sing as we marched through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.
And, no, not one flashbulb ever flashed and not one parent ever swooned during these walks down the aisle because, well, because we were Missouri Synod Lutherans. Yes, photography had been around longer than the Synod but that didn’t mean we simply accepted it after 125 years.
Ninety or so minutes of hymns and Old and New Testament verses later, the program ended with our exodus as children and congregation alike sang Joy to the World. It may sound blasphemous to say we rocked that gym but that’s exactly what we did — in joy, praise and thanksgiving.
One Christmas Eve when I was in college I accompanied my parents to the program. As the children made their exit I spotted a boy wearing what had been, until just four months before, my blue, double-breasted wool blazer. My mother, who had made it for me for my high school senior pictures, figured I wouldn’t wear it again and, as such, had donated it to the church. She was right; I didn’t wear it again.
Also that year, as in every Christmas program I participated in from 1961 through 1969, as the children passed the corner kitchen on their way out each received a paper sack filled with chocolate candy and oranges.
Like I said, young and old, my people rarely gather — Christmas Eve included — unless there’s a light lunch served.
© 2011 ag comm