In the 1950s the post-Thanksgiving interlude meant four weeks of mandatory Saturday rehearsals for the annual children's Christmas program at First Missionary Church. This elaborate production was commandeered by the formidable Mrs. Don Miller and her sidekick, Mrs. Frank Miller, no relation; think Daniel in the lions' den times two.
These zealous gray-haired ladies tamed their rowdy charges, coaxing them alternately with threats and bribes until at last some semblance of order prevailed. Then practice would begin in earnest in the basement of the church. Over and over the youngsters repeated the songs, over and over again, all four verses, sometimes in two-part harmony, until their little faces were red with exertion and their bodies sweaty.
This was serious business. No slack was given nor expected. The Millers auditioned soloists, assigned Scripture for memorization, instructed ornery boys when to stand up and when to sit down, cast the shepherds and selected the most ethereal girl to host the heavenly angels. Then they practiced their songs all over: “Little children can you tell? Do you know the story well?”
Though expectations were high, by the end of the third rehearsal Betty Miller was obviously worried. As she distributed chiffon angel dresses, choir robes and bathrobes, drapery chords and tassels, crowns and crooks, the mothers consoled her, promising to wash, iron, mend and practice at home.
As in a Christmas card, the stained-glass windows glowed in the falling snow as cars pulled into the church parking lot on the night of the performance. Inside, the vestibule smelled of fresh pine; the sanctuary was transformed, dressed for the occasion with pine and cedar garlands draping the balconies, sprigs of holly and berries embellishing each pew, the platform outlined in white skirting, an empty manger where formerly the pulpit stood.
The church was packed by the time Mrs. Clauser began her organ prelude. All the saints were in their usual spots — the Lochners, the Sprungers, the Steiners, the Gerigs and the Witmers. Still, ushers continued to ferry latecomers to their families who had saved them a seat.
And then as the house lights dimmed, a spotlight caught little Jimmy Lehman, who bounded onto the platform, fell flat, jumped up and boldly approached the microphone. “What can I give Him small as I am? If I were a shepherd I'd give Him a Lamb…” The annual children's Christmas program was off and running.
Beginning with toddlers who'd been coached to ring a bell and sing simultaneously, it was a veritable music box of vocal treasures come to life with Mrs. Miller furiously directing at the helm. The audience was spellbound as the combined kinder-choirs robed in white gowns with red bows sang a cappella, “O Come, O Come Emanuel.”
Pausing briefly, 12-year-old Judy Beltz stepped forward and solemnly recited, “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree…”
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” the children sang, gazing down from their perch in the choir loft as the holy family emerged, and Susie Laymon laid her babe in the manger. Suddenly, just like the first time, the archangel, Sally Reitdorf, in her tinseled halo, appeared as startled shepherds, who actually looked like they had slept with sheep, stumbled down the aisle. Lifting their voices with gusto in their favorite refrain, the boys and the girls sang “Glo–o–o–o–ria.”
By now Mrs. Miller was beaming. “We Three Kings” they sang, watching their older brothers kneel before their King. Then the whole congregation stood and in one great voice closed the program with a resounding rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
It was a beautiful thing to behold, the passing of the ancient liturgy from one generation to the next. Agnes and Betty Miller are long gone, yet 50 years later the memory of their gift remains lovely and distinct as the clearest bell on a silent night.