(The following article was written by Dora Maendel, my friend, colleague and mentor - I owe a great deal to her for helping me become the writer I am today.)
“Ihr feiert drei Tage Weihnachten?” (You celebrate Christmas for three days?) Our German visitor was incredulous. “Ausgerechnet ihr -- mit eurer starkgeprägten Arbeitsethik!” (You (Hutterites) of all people -- with your strong German work ethic!) A history student from the University of Berlin, Bodo Hildebrand made extended visits to Manitoba during the late 80’s for the field research of his doctoral dissertation on the Hutterite education system. In 1988 he experienced his first Canadian winter and spent Christmas with us.
His previous visits occurring in spring and summer, Hildebrand was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of farm work. A career university student, he found it back breaking to help weed watermelon and load turkeys.
He was duly astonished, therefore, to learn that Hutterites treat both Boxing Day and the day after as Sundays, including a morning church service, an afternoon of relaxation and leisure and a brief evening vespers service just before supper. The second and third days especially, will be enriched by visiting with family and community members from distant colonies.
The three morning church services traditionally include specific lessons: the New Testament story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s Gospel on Christmas Day, followed by teachings about the faith and devotion of the shepherds, Hannah and Simeon. A teaching about the Old Testament prophecies elaborates on the Messiah’s effect on people, with special emphasis on the joy and gratitude we owe for the miracle that made it possible for us to live in Christian Community as sisters and brothers. This is combined with an exhortation to be of a forgiving spirit, willing to share and serve the community in whatever capacity.
Inasmuch as these Holy Day teachings constitute a reminder to be thankful, Christmas for Hutterites might be described as an extension of the Thanksgiving Day theme, not unlike the way Hanukkah is for Jews and the Christmas Eve feast of twelve meatless dishes with wheat a central part of the festive table for Ukrainians.
Singing is an important aspect of Hutterite Christmas celebrations, and many carols of German origin are part of every family’s beloved repertoire, including “Lobt Gott, Ihr Christen allzugleich” (O praise the Lord, ye Christians all), “Silent Night”; “Ihr Kinderlein Kommet”, (O Come Little Children) and “O du Fröhliche”, (O thou joyous Day). There is a strong tradition of Saturday evening family singing and group singing with a major focus on participation, but today there is also an increased emphasis on choir singing. At the school Christmas concert and after Christmas Day dinner many colonies will enjoy songs by the young people as well as the children. In some colonies the children join the adults for a candle lit Christmas dinner in the Essenstubm, (adults’ dining room), a festive departure from the norm of taking their meals in the Essenschul (children’s dining room).
Since relationships are so pivotal to Hutterite community life, it’s no surprise that much of the preparation revolves around foods to be enjoyed during the Holiday as well as for months to come. In a very real sense, the primary purpose of these preparations is to enhance people’s appreciation for Christmas, thus strengthening community and family relationships.
In a Hutterite Community one of the major jobs before Christmas, along with the Fall cleaning of homes, community kitchen, church and laundromat,is Schwein schlochten (hog butchering). It marks the shift from outside work to inside or winter kinds of work and is the culmination of much of the annual farm work, from making Sauerkraut to doing chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. Just a few decades ago this meant two full weeks of plucking geese alone, in addition to the day-long jobs of chickens, ducks and turkeys.
Although a Canadian population uninitiated to the palatable delights of goose has largely eliminated commercial goose production, Advent still marks the full-scale return to indoor winter activities such as knitting, crocheting, cross stitching, wool carding, quilting and sewing. Summer months busy with gardening and canning, often leave time for mending and repairs only.
Whether Schwein schlochten occurs in November or just before Christmas, one meal of the Heätzwurst (heart sausage) is saved as the dinner entree for the second or third Christmas Holiday. While the noon meal on both those days is rich and delicious, neither is quite as sumptuous as the actual Christmas Day dinner of roast duck or goose -- often with a glass of homemade dandelion or chokecherry wine. Sometimes a Schnapsl is served, such as fruit flavoured brandy.
Heätzwurst is always broiled, and served with potatoes and gravy, baked parsnips and/or carrots, steamed Sauerkraut andTschweschpen Mues, a special dessert/side dish of stewed dried fruit which complements the rich salty taste of the Heätzwurst particularly well. Tschweschpen Mues is often thickened with cornstarch or flour or simply by adding heavy cream after cooling. Tschweschpen translates to prunes and Mues to compote.
(Click here for Part 2)