My dad was a Lutheran minister. Despite this, my family wasn’t particularly religious: we attended church but not always willingly, Mom grumbling about the cloud of perfume that would send her sneezing for the entire day, me longing for my bed and whatever book lay splayed on the bedside table. (To be fair, despite the first-plural here, I really can only speak for myself: my brother Rich may have felt very differently.) Before meals we hustled through a prayer, OLordthankyouforthisfoodweeatblesseverythingelsegivenusAmen.
At Advent we had short devotions at home, fifteen minutes reading an exciting story with animals in it, which is how I would have spent that time in any case, though the stories would have been different.
I know I loved the churches themselves, especially St. Peter’s, in Denver. It was an older church, with a towering altar of gilt walnut, a pulpit with a narrow coiled staircase leading up to it; a panelled vestry; the vast and mysterious kitchen in the basement; rooms and alcoves, secret halls and secondary staircases. Dad spent his Saturday afternoons in the church office, writing church bulletins (oh, the smell of mimeograph fluid! It’s like the scent of two-stroke oil to me; it is the smell of happiness). Rich and I raced up the back stairs and across the balcony, belly-crawled under the pews, and eyed the bell-rope speculatively. Someday I expect I’ll write a post about that magical place. How many people grow up next door to a mysterious castle?
For my dad, Christmas and Easter were the busy time at work. Christmas season: regular services plus weekly Advent services, rehearsals for the children’s service, and then the mad twenty-four hours of the holiday itself, tucked between the regular services that happened anyway: children’s Christmas Eve service, adult Christmas eve service, sometimes the midnight service, and then all the Christmas morning services. If Christmas was on a Saturday, Dad had regular services the next day as well.
Easter was even more so. Special Lenten services, and then: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter vigil, Easter sunrise, Easter morning, another Easter service…. It’s no wonder that my dad inevitably collapsed at the ends of these marathons, coughing and wheezing through an exhaustion-induced cold that lasted a week. We didn’t have a fancy dinner afterward, because on Christmas, we would leave for Northfield to visit grandparents right after services; on Easter, dad slept the day away, and I looked forward ruefully to the fact that there would be school the next day.
So for me, Christmas and Easter weren’t holidays in the sense of the family celebrating something together. I felt the same excitement any little kid might, at the church in its holiday finery, the fancy liturgy, my own new outfit, everyone else so excited. But this was my Dad’s job, something he worked hard at and wanted to do well, and in the end, my greatest happiness had to do with the fact that now we could return to normal.