A First Christmas Eve in America (1892)

Ernst Fischer and that first Christmas Eve in America (1892)

By David Weiss, based on the recollections of my father, Frederick Weiss, and some written notes from my Great Uncle Ernie Fischer.

When my father was a child Christmas Eve meant many things, but there are three things that stand out for him to this day.

Christmas Eve meant the Sunday School Christmas program. At St. Paul Lutheran Church it meant that for everyone. There was no late night candlelit service. In a day when most families were connected to a church—and when “connected” meant that most families were in church most weeks, and most kids were at Sunday School most Sundays—in that day, the only worship service on Christmas Eve was the Sunday School Christmas program.

Every child had lines to learn, a song to sing, or a role to play. So Christmas Eve was a bundle of nerves—“Would I say my lines just right?” “Would I remember the song?” Would I move to the right place on cue?”—blended with excitement and a solemn sense of responsibility. Children didn’t simply go to church on Christmas Eve, they were church on Christmas Eve. That’s the first thing.

After the program was over the family would gather at Grandma and Grandpa Fischer’s home (my great-grandparents). There were eight Fischer children now grown up with children of their own, and most still lived in Michigan City, so this gathering featured a growing array of grandchildren. And, in the Fischer family on Christmas Eve, the grandchildren all had a second solemn duty.

Once assembled, each would repeat their part from the Christmas program for Grandma and Grandpa and the rest of the family. Because in this family, and most especially on Christmas Eve, to be family was to be church was to be children. Faith and family interwove themselves into the joy of the holiday. That’s the second thing.

But most of all, there is the third thing. After the children had done their recitations, Grandpa Fischer, becoming in a real sense a child himself all over again, would do his recitation. He would tell the Christmas story as it happened in his life.

In the telling Grandpa Fischer would become little Ernst Fischer. At age five, he was a new immigrant to this country, having traveled from Germany with his mother and three older brothers just two months earlier, to join their father in America.

That first Christmas Eve in America (1892), Ernst wanted desperately to go to church. So one of his older brothers took him down to the center of Michigan City, where the towering steeple of St. Paul Lutheran Church must have seemed like it marked the center of the world. My father doesn’t remember hearing why neither parent went along; perhaps as a new immigrant family they were still finding their place in this land. In any case, five-year old Ernst knew what he wanted for Christmas: he wanted to go to church.

When the prophet Isaiah writes, “a little child shall lead them,” he was perhaps thinking of a child like Ernst. When Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was to be entered with childlike faith, he might have had in mind the trusting hunger of a child like Ernst. Many of us have encountered a child who has spoken or acted with providential wisdom at some point. In 1892 in Michigan City that child was Ernst John Fischer.

Bundled against the cold, Ernst and his brother trudged through snowy streets until they reached the church. Whether in 1892 there was already a Sunday School program or whether this was a regular worship service I don’t know. But Grandpa Fischer would then tell how when they arrived at the church door his older brother lost his nerve and refused to go inside.

Now “older brother” means ten or thirteen or fifteen years old, so it is not hard to imagine that when the walk to church suddenly becoming entering the sanctuary of a unfamiliar church on a holy night, any one of us might have shrunk back as well, especially if we, too, were less than two months in this new country. And that’s what Ernst’s brother did. He said, “Sorry, kid, no way. I got you here, but we’re not going in.”

Outside in the twilight Ernst burst into tears. Who knows why. He was only five years old, and why should a church service—even a Christmas Eve service—mean so much to a little boy. But cry he did, pleading with his brother, “Please, can’t we go in?” Still, as stubbornly as Ernst wanted in, his brother wanted out. Between their tug of wills and whispered words back and forth, suddenly a booming voice interjected, “What is this? No child should be in tears on Christmas Eve!”

That booming voice, coming from a tall man and shrouded in a bushy beard, might well have sounded like Moses himself, but it was, in fact, the voice of Pastor Johannes Vollmer on his way inside to lead the worship. Both fears and tears were scattered. Pastor Vollmer’s booming voice was filled with good cheer and kindness. He greeted the boys warmly and ushered them inside.

It was Grandpa Fischer’s first Christmas Eve in America, and he spent it, as a five-old, hungry to celebrate the birth of the Christ child—and finding that hunger met with an altogether unexpected Grace in the booming voice of Pastor Vollmer and the welcoming people of St. Paul Lutheran Church.

That Christmas Eve St. Paul Lutheran Church became Grandpa’s church, and it remained so until he died 80 years later. And what my father remembers is how important that first Christmas Eve was to Grandpa Fischer. Each year when he told the story, the emotion—even the tears—of five year-old Ernst came back afresh. All the grandchildren listening knew they were hearing a recitation as sacred as anything in the Holy Writ.

After Grandpa Fischer died, Uncle Bob, one of his children, took over the telling of the tale for several more years. And even Uncle Bob’s cheeks glistened, moistened by the memory of a story where the good news of that first Christmas in Bethlehem—and the good news of that first Christmas in Michigan City—became intertwined. Faith and family. Children and church. From generation to generation.

Grandpa Fischer grew old. When I knew him he seemed ancient, but the third thing my father remembers is how at every Christmas Eve Grandpa Fischer became a child again, reminding all of them that the truth of Christmas is longing for—and being found by a Grace bigger and wider than we could have possibly imagined in the first place.

* * *

This post is part of an occasional series of family history vignettes that I’m working on.

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7 thoughts on “A First Christmas Eve in America (1892)

  1. Thanks David; I too remember going to see Grandma and Grandpa after the program on Christmas Eve so we could get our present from them. Growing up I never thought of them as poor, but with 18 grandchildren they couldn’t but us gifts. Each year Grandpa would instruct us to go in their bedroom to get our gift. On one side of the room was an old wooden trunk that came from Germany with them. Lined up on top were little brown paper bags with a ribbon. Inside they were filled with peanuts, a couple pieces of candy an orange and ALL the LOVE in the WORLD! They were lined up in order of age, your Dad’s was the first as the oldest. I have the trunk and still cherish it to this day.

    • Thanks, Paul. I’m sure your memories are richer than mine, and you dad may have remembered and retold different things than my dad did. Watch for the others I’ll be posting over the next few weeks–and by all means keep adding your own recollections!

  2. David, I Loved reading this. I was tool little to remember Grandpa Fischer, but heard the story told by Uncles Ernie, Bob and Dick. I was wondering if you are going to provide this to St. Paul’s current congregation ever? It is really powerful and it seems that a story this positive and rich with history may be helpful at this time there! Can’t wait to read more and will read it to my little ones as well. Thank-you!

    • Amy, this is a really good idea — to share it with St. Paul. It might help them reclaim the richness of their heritage the same way it can help a family remember the richness of its roots. I’ve sent this piece to both my Dad and Uncle Dick to ask for their feedback (and corrections or additions if needed). When it’s done, I’ll ask my folks to pass it along to Pastor Reshan and see about including it in a newsletter.

  3. David, this brings back memories of Christmas past. I remember going to church Christmas Eve and all of us in Sunday School got to hold real candles and sit in the choir pews up by the altar. That was over 70 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks for posting.

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