The Children's Christmas Eve Services at Grace are a tradition that goes back sixty years or more. Read one father's reflection on his family's participation in the services below. Then learn more about the Candle Cross tradition in Pastor Dean Lueking's history of the service.
Grace on Christmas Eve
As near as I can remember or calculate, we first attended Grace Lutheran Church’s family Christmas Eve service in 1993, when our son Jonathan was in Ellie Schnack’s kindergarten class. We have attended each year since, as all three of our children—Jonathan, then Jennifer, then Jessica—have sung in the service … and then beyond, even as our youngsters grew too old to participate, because we couldn’t bear to be away.
This year will be our first away from the service in, then, 17 years—drawn this time to Grandma’s house in Michigan for Christmas Eve dinner.
I have a vivid memory of the very first time we saw the cross forming in front of the altar, in the almost-darkness of the sanctuary: Donna weeping openly … Craig trying not to weep. Yes, this was Christmas: Sight and sound and sense converging in a way that went beyond the reasoning mind. Children. Silence. Darkness. Light. Music. Still, still, still. Yes.
It is important to understand the power of this Christmas Eve moment. Grace Lutheran Church holds in its congregation many great minds, many great voices. There is grandeur and splendor in much that we do. But: just as the truth of our faith comes down ultimately to a lowly child born in a barn, so does our distinctive community come down to a single child's voice singing out of the darkness on Christmas Eve: “Once in royal David’s city ….”
(Soloist: Olivia Renteria, Class of 2010)
The Candle Cross Tradition at Grace
by Pastor Dean Lueking
The candle cross formed by the children each Christmas Eve has become a deeply loved tradition at Grace Church. For the children who participate, it’s a defining moment. Fourth-graders watching it from the pews think “Next year I’ll be up there!” and eighth-graders realize “Next year I won’t.”
Longtime Grace School sixth grade teacher Elfrieda Miller began the tradition in l943. Her pupils remember her no-nonsense insistence on doing things right. "Hold the candle just so! No wobbling! Exactly in line with the others! When one arm tires, bring the other up slowly, so that no one notices." Elfrieda was so exacting because she wanted the children to learn that reverence requires discipline. Years later, Grace choir members can still repeat the drill as they keep coming back Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve to worship and remember. Indeed, all of us who cherish the power and beauty of this tradition do the same. For us, too, the children give us a defining moment for measuring time, remembering other Christmas Eves and those dear to us as well as wondering how things will be when next Christmas Eve rolls around.
Grace School teacher, organist, and music director emeritus, Paul Bouman, enriched this tradition greatly during his years from l953 – l983. Under his direction, the signature carol “O Holy Night” was joined with the candle cross to proclaim what the Christ Child came to do “He knows our needs. Our weakness is no stranger.” No wonder, then, our eyes tear up and hearts overflow as these children, so young and tender, sing of truth more profound than they yet realize.
As the Christmas Eve candle cross tradition at Grace flourished throughout the l960’s and beyond, Paul Bouman kept enriching it by using both darkness and light in the sanctuary and joining music both quietly solemn and joyfully bright. “Once In Royal David’s City,” “O Holy Night,” “Torches,” Luther’s “Ah, Dearest Jesus, Holy Child,” and the song by 19th century German composer Peter Cornelius describing a family Christmas Eve celebration (“The holly’s up, the house is all bright…”) are inscribed lifelong in the memories of all who once sang them (and us who have heard them) on Christmas Eves through the decades.
The important task of preparing and costuming the children for their respective parts in presenting the Christmas story fell to Margaret Kruse, the legendary fifth grade teacher at Grace. When asked how they fared through lengthy readings, she said “Quite well!” adding on second thought “…I guess we did lose a few Josephs who fainted from standing stark still.”
A major gift to the tradition came in 2000 when Children’s Choir leader Gwen Gotsch opened participation to public school children of the Grace congregation. A great move! And one that requires more cooperation by parents and children involved.
Noteworthy: when this tradition began three quarters of a century ago, 58% of Americans came to worship each week. In the decade of the l960’s alone it fell by a record 13% and has steadily declined since to its present 35%. As we at Grace face the challenges these statistics present, the Christmas Eve candle cross tradition is ever more precious. Why not honor it by inviting folks, especially children, who have no idea of what they’re missing to come with you this Christmas Eve and find their welcome at the manger?
I make this appeal as one who at age 7 was brought to a Christmas Eve service in my home town for the first time. I’ve been a Lutheran ever since.