Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Rejoicing in the Sunday School Christmas Program December 16, 2012

Sunday School students at Trinity Lutheran Church, Faribault, present the Christmas story Saturday evening.

Sunday School students at Trinity Lutheran Church, Faribault, present the Christmas story Saturday evening.

EMBEDDED DEEP in the memories of, I expect, many Midwestern Baby Boomers like me is the rich tradition of the Sunday School Christmas program.

There is simply nothing sweeter, nothing more meaningful to me, than viewing the Christmas story from the perspective of a child. Such telling, such re-enacting of the biblical account of Christ’s birth exorcises the frills, the stress, the hustle and bustle, the worldliness from my holiday experience. And that is a good thing.

Every little girl wants to portray an angel...

Every little girl wants to portray an angel…

For one evening, for one hour, I take it all in—this most basic sharing of the gospel by darling angels in glittery halos and restless wings, by usually rambunctious boys cinched in bath robes, by the honored two portraying Mary and Joseph, by the other children who sing and tell of Jesus’ birth.

Dressed in holiday finery, the little ones wait in the fellowship hall before the start of the worship service.

Dressed in holiday finery, the little ones wait in the fellowship hall before the start of the worship service.

It is a magical time, a butterflies-in-your-stomach worship service for the children, giddy with joy yet nervous about stepping before the congregation,.

I grew up with the Sunday School Christmas Program, lined up on the basement steps of the old wood-frame church in Vesta packed shoulder to shoulder with my classmates, awaiting that moment when the organist would begin playing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and we would enter, pair-by-pair, into the sanctuary.

An angel proclaims the news of Christ's birth.

An angel proclaims the news of Christ’s birth.

Although costumed pageantry was not allowed in the conservative Lutheran church of my youth, I remember with fondness those traditional Christmas hymns—“Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World,” “Behold, A Branch is Growing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem”—which told of Christ’s birth as did the memorized sharing of the gospel when we each “spoke our piece.”

I always prayed I would never be assigned to recite the confusing verse: So Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David…

And so the years passed until I outgrew the Sunday School Christmas program.

The cast from the biblical account of the Savior's birth.

The cast from the biblical account of the Savior’s birth.

Decades later I would pass the tradition along to my own three children, this time in a Lutheran church which allowed the costumed pageantry of sharing the biblical account of the Savior’s birth. The halos and bathrobes, the reading of the gospel, the singing of Christmas hymns all wove into their memories.

Now I am at that place in my life when I sit side-by-side with my husband in a pew, our children grown and gone, not yet married, awaiting those Christmases when the tradition of the Sunday School Christmas Program will pass along to the next generation.

After the service, my friends' children, Nevaeh (Mary) and Braxton, pose for photos in the fellowship hall.

After the service, my friends’ children, Nevaeh (Mary) and Braxton, pose for photos in the fellowship hall.

TELL ME, is a Sunday School Christmas Program (or something similar) part of your Christmas experience? Do you have such fond memories from your youth?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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30 Responses to “Rejoicing in the Sunday School Christmas Program”

  1. Sartenada Says:

    That is a very lovely post with wonderful photos. I am glad that old traditions live. In Finland we have different Christmas time tradition. Young boys are singing and telling about Christ birth.

    Wikipedia gives a small not from Finnish tradition:

    Christmas tradition

    Look for Scandinavia and Finland.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    What awesome pictures—I almost felt like I was there!!! My favorite Christmas memory has to be Candlelight Service at 11 pm. Since my Daddy was pastor we got some special privileges. In between the early service and the late service he served us communion at home. I still miss that. But the neatest thing was being part of lighting the candles at the late service. Every year we alternated and two would take the early and two the later service. I always remember being thrilled when it was “my” year to light them at the 11–for some reason that seemed even more special!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I did not know you were a “PK.” See, I learn something new each day. Thank you for sharing those wonderful memories of the candlelight service. I think I’ve only ever attended one of those and perhaps it’s time to change that. There’s something magical about candlelight.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        There is something magical about candlelight services indeed!! Oh and the other thing we did in between the services was we had fancy snacks and cookies, wassail that Daddy made and we got to open ONE present which was usually new jammies my mom or grandma made. They were usually pretty elaborate and I remember several years they were all different animals complete with tails which were cool to bop each other with but hard to sleep with! :-)

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I am laughing out loud about those animal pjs. Those tails would have been quite useful, indeed.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        Oh they were—great for bopping each other on the head!!! :-)

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        This story made me think of the year I dressed as a cat for Halloween, wearing my pjs. My mom pinned a tail, woven from her old nylons, onto the seat of my pjs. I remember flipping that tail at a few select people.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        Of course you did!!! It is what anyone would do!

  3. treadlemusic Says:

    Today/this morning we had our S.S. Christmas program. Definitely a production of “today” but none-the-less telling the story of “why” God’s Son made the beloved sacrifice and became a totally human babe in a manger. The children also had opportunity to take this to the community yesterday and, hopefully/prayerfully, it made a holy impact on those who observed…..especially in light of the tragic recent happenings.
    I so love how you captured the 4 angels in that first photo of them!!! So very real (smile)! A very sweet post and one that brings back memories of raising our boys (shephards/bathrobes)!! Hugs…

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I, too, was pleased with that close-up image of the four angels. Kids being kids, oblivious to my camera.

      You nailed it with your summary of the reason we celebrate Christmas. And I, like you, pray that the message these children bring touches hearts and souls.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        He is Who the world needs but is too busy on the ‘treadmill of life’ to accept. The day is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He, indeed, is Lord of all……all praise to Him…amen and amen!

  4. Amy Says:

    I remember when I was younger and we would do our Christmas service on Christmas eve and then high tail it to my grandparents church at North Morristown to catch the end of theirs. The best memories I have are standing room only at the little country church! I think I miss most the programs being held on Christmas Eve. We have moved to doing it before Christmas so more kids will participate. I haven’t figured out yet if it is happening because church isn’t as high of a priority anymore or if it is because families are so spread out now that in order to go to Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s, they have to leave sooner because they are farther away.

    I like to think the latter, but I think the first thought affects it more than we would like to admit.

    Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I, too, really, really miss the children’s Sunday School Program being on Christmas Eve. When our kids were growing up, we stayed here in Faribault so they could participate in the program rather than driving the 2 1/2 hours in opposite directions to be with family. We felt it important to establish traditions within our own family.

      I’ve only attended Christmas Eve services once in a country church. That was south of my husband’s hometown of Buckman. We were newly-married and the weather was horrible that evening as we plowed through snowdrifts along back gravel roads. We entered the church, which had maybe a dozen pews, and everyone turned to stare. And I remember the pastor calling Joseph and Mary, “Joe and Mary.” Such memories.

      You know, now that Jon is a pastor, perhaps he can change the children’s service back to Christmas Eve up there in your little northwestern Minnesota parish on the prairie.

      I totally agree with you on a general societal indifference to the importance of worship.

      • Amy Says:

        I have a feeling once changed…always changed. I don’t see us going back to Christmas Eve Children’s program anytime soon. You know how Lutheran’s are with change…..and it was probably a big deal to make the program earlier not too many years ago…..

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Ha, ha. You know how Lutherans are with change. So true.

  5. Jackie Says:

    Sadly those days have ended at our church, the one my children grew up in. Back in the mid 80′s – late 90′s they did have the childrens program but some how it phased out after my children were older. Now I really miss it especially with little Audrey being that age where she could be an angel. Next week the children will stand in front of the church and sing a few Christmas songs along with their little hand motions. I look forward to whatever I can get. Your photos did bring back sweet memories of my own little ones….back in the day

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Oh, I can just picture your sweet Audrey in angel wings and halo.

      Perhaps you can start a movement to get the pageantry back in the children’s program at your church?

  6. Allan Landman Says:

    I don’t remember seeing it, but my Mom and Dad and older Sister would tell about the Church Christmas program at our Church that had the place in laughter. Here’s the scenario, My Sister was Mary, as she had long dark hair and very pretty. Joseph was played by another first grader who did not attend any of the rehearsals. The night of the Program, the Sunday School leader thought it would be beautiful to have “light” coming from the cradle. She placed a flash-light inside the cradle and my Sister “Mary” would turn the flash light on when she placed baby Jesus into the Cradle. All was wonderful until Joseph looked inside and found the “source of light”, picked it up and flashed it across the church, mumbling, “why is this in there?”. He continued to flash the congregation, and of course laughter could not be held back. The Sunday School leader laughed the hardest!!! As she told the audience later,” One never knows what Babes will do”. The Pastor, even though a strict Lutheran no nonsense guy, said, ” Never follow a child or dog act.” The laughter rose the roof! I am sure God looked down and even had a smile, as he created us all, and we are all his children! My Sister passed away 12 years ago from Cancer at the age of 57. Every Christmas I remember her with the story of “Mary and Joseph”, and the flash-light. Merry Christmas to all!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Allan, thank you for sharing this deeply personal and humorous story. This is simply wonderful, especially given its Lutheran church setting. What a treasured memory of your beloved sister, too. I am so sorry for your loss.

  7. Nancy Says:

    I also remember those days very fondly. We also did a church Sunday school program and one at the school in Echo, MN. every year, too. I remember especially the year me and another girl got to sing the verse “I said the donkey all shaggy and brown..” at the school program. I also remember that most girls wanted to be chosen to play the part of Mary. It was always a very exciting prelude to Christmas.
    It’s sad that those events not being allowed in schools anymore, and that some churches no longer participate in such events for whatever reason. There is alot to be said for “the good old days”. The older I get the more I miss those days.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your memories. And I agree with you regarding your sadness about the banning of “Christmas” from schools.

  8. Sara K. Says:

    “Go Tell It On The Mountain” was the favorite (and loudest) song at our church’s Christmas program yesterday afternoon. I’m still singing it to myself and maybe now you are, too!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I can’t specifically remember “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Perhaps it was too folksy, too raucous, for the conservative Lutheran church of my upbringing. Or I’ve forgotten. I also forgot to mention “Silent Night,” the most reverent of songs. Thanks for sharing your memories, Sara.

  9. Lanae Says:

    I was the one who got the “And Joseph went out” all those hard words to say and remember as we were not allowed to use a paper to read off of. We were so blessed to have a church who told the story of Christ through all of us who were children. I liked the bag with the goodies at the end the best!! My favorite song is “What Child is This”

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You know, I can’t remember the verses I had to recite.

      And how could I forget “What Child Is This?” One my favorite Christmas hymns, too.

      Thanks for sharing, dear sister. I absolutely agree about the goodie bags. Our church in Faribault still hands them out, although the contents are much different than ours were as children.

  10. I’ll be posting about ours on Christmas Day! Love your photos!

  11. Grace and peace!

    I’m a writer, I am finishing a book about Jesus and came across your photo of half of Jesus’ face in the stained glass window. It was love at first sight.

    I wonder if you authorize me to use it on the cover of the book.

    Looking forward to your reply.

    Regards,

    Samuel Rezende.

    • Samuel, thank you for your interest in my photo. This seems to be a popular image as others have also inquired about its usage.

      My photos are available for licensing. If you are interested in purchasing one-time usage of this image, we can discuss. You will find my email address in the ABOUT section of my blog (tab is on the home page).


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