On the Saturday evening of the weekend before Christmas, my husband and I spend the evening with a group of people together in the sanctuary of a small, aging church building in Albany, California, north of Berkeley. In an area of the country where more folks are “unchurched” than in areas where hundreds of people – young and old – gather in large auditoriums to hear loud, drum-backed music while strobe lights flash overhead – we sit together for two hours in old wooden pews, taking in Christmas.
A Tongan woman dances to a song from her people as a two year old, born in the United States to parents whose native language is Tamil, born and raised in the South of India, runs behind the dancing woman, up the stairs to the chancel, where a Christmas tree stands at the center, its lights changing from white to multi-colored, and the little one dances in front of the tree as the rest of us smile and giggle at her antics.
A line of Filipinos, the women all wearing the same plaid winter shirt, sing a song from their country. A Korean choir proudly sings “He is Everything to Me,” standing in a line. A five year old girl – the oldest in the group of children who stand before us – sings all the verses of “Feliz Navidad,” the smaller children fidgeting, not sure where to look, as the mother of a two year old walks her little girl up to sit with the other children, all dressed in their Christmas best. A Tamil couple who spent most of the past year in India with family sing a song in their native language.
All the while during the concert unfolding before us, toddlers meet in the center aisle of the church, looking into each others’ faces, holding hands and swaying to the music they hear. Their parents smile as they watch their children, at the same time, their heads nodding to the Christmas music, the other entertainment of the evening.
A well dressed, handsome young man – accustomed to being in the spotlight – walks to the front of the sanctuary, where he reads “Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman, (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981; American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader). The young man graces us with the African American Gospel song, “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child,” and as he leaves the front of the sanctuary, he is followed by a couple from India, singing the Malayalam Song, “Christmas Raavananja Neram.” Their daughter, 2 months old – a child they had waited many years to welcome into their lives – sleeps in the infant seat her mother had carried with her to the front of the church.
We are grateful when the Pastor, a native of Korea and a professor of preaching, uses his time at the pulpit to offer a few words of Christmas blessing, and then sits again among the rest of us in the pews. Not much needs to said when we see Christmas unfolding here, right before our eyes.
Over the course of the evening, we hear Christmas songs and carols in 10 languages.
And then – as the music quiets – Korean women, all dressed in red for the occasion, pass out little white candles, and we sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night…” The lights are darkened as the candles are held high, sparkling.
Soon, we crowd into the center aisle of the small sanctuary, greeting one another, many with elbow-bumps – in honor of Covid – and we are filled with joy, gratitude, for being together to bring Christmas to one another, a gift.
Christmas Lights on View Place, December, 2022, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert