Christmas has changed a lot in Our Town since the area was first settled in the early 1870s. The Czech and German people arriving in the area had many rich Christmas traditions, but they often had to be put aside for a time as the immigrants struggled to adapt to the New World. For example, the European carp had long been the centerpiece of the traditional Czech Christmas dinner (and still is in the modern Czech Republic). However, the carp was not native to America; it was first brought to the U.S. from Germany in 1872, and was not introduced to Nebraska streams and rivers until the 1880s. So the first Central European immigrants had to content themselves with wild game, preserved fish (barrel-packed salted cod and pickled herring), and, of course, Christmas breads (hoska/vanocka) and kolaches.
Many of the early settlers around the Maple Creek south of Clarkson were Roman Catholics, and their first years were difficult. In her memoirs, my Mother, Blanche Cada, told an early story that was passed down from her ancestors:
“… several pioneer families had settled on Maple Creek. They conducted their own religious services until missionary priests arrived [initially by walking from West Point]. On the first Christmas along the Maple Creek, the first settlers of the area gathered in the home of Joseph F. Sindelar for services. Joseph Krajicek, one of the settlers, had a book of Epistles and Gospels, and a Bohemian Mass book. Joseph Sindelar read the prayers and sermons from the books and the people sang the songs they knew. When Mr. Sindelar came to the prayers for the Consecration in the Mass, his son rang a bell, and all the people who were gathered in the sod house broke into uncontrolled tears.”
It is interesting that the first Christmas service that the Catholics observed in their new home was an occasion for sadness and tears. For Catholics, the Consecration is the central, most sacred part of the Mass, and it is an action that can only be carried out by an ordained priest. Hence, the ringing of the bell at this part of the service reminded the first settlers of what they had given up when they left Europe – lovely churches, beautiful old traditions, and the comfort of a priest to minister to their needs and to administer the sacraments.
It didn’t take long for these determined pioneers to set spiritual matters right. A series of circuit-riding priests began stopping in the area every month or so to celebrate Mass in homes and schools. By 1871 the Bohemian and German settlers had acquired land in the so-called Heun Community for a cemetery, so that they could bury their beloved dead in consecrated ground rather than in private burial plots on the individual farms. Although they were frustrated initially by droughts and plagues of locusts, and many were still living in sod houses or crude shacks, by 1878 they had managed to construct a 30 ft. X 60 ft. wooden framed church. Rather than naming it after a Bohemian saint as many might have wished, they named the new church and parish Holy Trinity Church, so that their German and Moravian neighbors would not feel excluded. The first Christmas Mass at Holy Trinity Church was celebrated in 1878.
The new church started out as a simple structure, virtually empty except for a few pews and a plain wooden table for an altar (much like the earliest Christian churches, I suppose). Over the years, the original Holy Trinity Church at Heun was embellished on the inside, filled with statues and paintings of God and his saints.
The parish grew and prospered, and in 1928 a new, brick church was completed to replace the well-used, 50-year-old wooden structure.
Some of my happiest childhood memories of Christmas center around Midnight Mass at that little, brick country church. It was always beautifully decorated with a cluster of evergreen trees and a large manger scene on the right side altar.
Midnight Mass was always well attended in those days; often folding chairs had to be set up in the back and in the aisles. In addition to the usual parishioners, relatives living away would come home for the holidays and join their families for the services. Young people who were in a serious love relationship often brought their boyfriend/girlfriend to this Mass to introduce them to the Heun community.
In my memory, it was always bitterly cold outside (and of course dark), so we all filed in wearing heavy wool clothing and overshoes. The church was warm, we were packed into the pews, and because there was no place to put our heavy coats we just kept them on. It was a struggle for a little boy to stay awake in those close, cozy quarters.
Midnight Mass was preceded by 30 minutes of Christmas carol singing, so we would often arrive soon after 11 PM to be guaranteed a seat near our accustomed pew (about 1/3 of the way back on the left side). The organist (Eleanor Sobota in my lifetime) would fire up the pipe organ, and the whole congregation would sing those beautiful old religious carols.
We didn’t need books – everyone knew the words to those classic songs that celebrated the Birth of Jesus. The congregation sang loudly and with enthusiasm, and when we got to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” even the plaster angels seemed to join in.
After Mass, and hurried greetings to our fellow Christians in the frigid parking lot, we’d jump back into our cold cars and head home over crunchy, snow-packed gravel roads. My Mother would scramble up some farm fresh eggs, accompanied by home-made butter and fresh-baked rolls for a late night snack. Then we’d head for bed, because on Christmas Day we looked forward to visiting our extended families at Grandma’s house in Clarkson.
These days, Christmas is more of a cultural holiday than a religious holiday for many; we compete for the most outdoor lights, the largest inflatable Santa, the prettiest cookies. It is my wish that you will be visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past – that all the rush and fun of holiday parties and gift-giving will not overshadow for you the true meaning of Christmas, a celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior. Our immigrant ancestors may not have been eloquent or well-educated, but they understood this well.
I hope that you too have good memories of the old days, and are making more good memories every year. Phyllis and I wish you all the Blessings of this Holy Season, and health, happiness, and peace in the New Year. Gloria in excelsis Deo!