(In case you missed the first part, click here.)
Baking has become another integral Christmas tradition for Hutterites. In late November or early December one of the women cooking duos bakes fruit cake with the help of the head cook. Because it tends to be expensive, it is often alternated with a simpler kind such as Vienna torte, chocolate, white or Princess Elizabeth Cake.
Another delightful Christmas pastry is cookies, a spectacular event in some colonies with a dozen or more different varieties baked by the Dienen, young women, in one day. On those days breakfast in the community kitchen is accompanied by the aroma of gingerbread or macaroons, girlish chatter and laughter and a carol or two floating in from the Bochheisel,(bakery). In other years cookie baking is spread out over Advent with only two varieties made each week. Fresh baking provides a fine opportunity to make a gesture of thanks to a neighbour or business associate.
Individual gift-giving varies among Hutterites and is a significant aspect of Christmas for some families, while others try to deemphasize it. Children always receive a gift from the colony, though shopping may be the parents’ responsibility with each age group allotted the same amount of money, e.g., ten dollars for five year olds and fifteen for twelve year olds. Parents may add to that in order to afford a larger item such as a keyboard or even skates -- an incredible contrast to the time in our history in late seventeenth-century Slovakia (Hungary) when Hutterite communities were so poor it was not possible to provide everyone with a pair of shoes. Upon entering a home it was imperative to leave one’s shoes at the door. Everyone inside was in stocking feet and it was understood that anyone needing to leave would slip into whatever fitting pair of shoes was available at the door.
In an effort to reduce or avoid the materialistic consumerism gift giving can so easily become, some families have made a tradition of drawing names so that each member receives a gift and is obligated to give only one. Others refrain from individual gift giving altogether.
Although gift giving practices may vary from colony to colony, a traditional highlight observed by all is Necklus taldn, the distribution of an elaborate array of Christmas treats to every family in the community. Throughout the Advent weeks the Hausholter, steward (secretary treasurer) who is also responsible for grocery purchases, chooses different products from wholesalers and other outlets in Winnipeg or Brandon. He is assisted by several senior women, his wife and/or the head cook. The very word Necklus conjures up images of delectable snack foods: chocolate, jujubes, peanuts, fruit, crackers, sardines, smoked oysters, ham, popcorn, soda pop, chips and fruit juice among others. Often it includes the year’s supply of household products such as cough drops, shampoo, bath soap, even fabric softener.
In addition to meeting everyone’s needs equitably, the celebratory abundance of things sweet and delicious is symbolic of the wondrous richness of life and the myriad blessings effected in our lives by the Messiah whose birth we commemorate.
Two other characteristics of Necklus taldn are the fair distribution which is expressive of our belief in brotherly caring for all. It also illustrates and underscores the importance of family and hospitality because some items are put away expressly for times when company comes. “The only time my mother ever served canned ham was when we had visitors, making it the most special of foods,” a friend told me recently. “Mother sent me to the community kitchen fridge for some pickles, which she served with sandwiches or a plate of ham, cheese and crackers,”
Another special memory from the same woman involves the tradition of Christmas Eve singing. “After each of us had a bath, we gathered in the living room to sing all our favourite Weihnachtslieder (Christmas songs), until we were warm and thirsty. Then my Dad opened a large can of orange juice and served us each a glass. It was delectable and remains for me an unforgettable part of the joys of that evening.”
A Christmas Eve memory from my childhood is a marvelous potpourri of older sister Sarie giving us baths in the aluminum tub behind the coal stove. At the other end of the living room Mother was finishing some shirts for the boys. “Chris, run over to Ona Basel (Aunt Anna), and get me the Knupfluchausnaner, (buttonholer)”, she urged.
After my bath I hurried to the sewing machine. I loved watching the buttonholer’s staccato dance up and down the pencil marks on the shirt front.
Threading the needle to sew buttons, Mother started the first song of the evening. My father joined her and I hear their voices still, “Das Herzens Jesulein, Das Herzens Jesulein!” (O blessed Baby Jesu!)
These and many other memories result from our Christmas traditions, and if three days seems a little long drawn out, I’m reminded of the importance of our sabbath, a weekly day of rest. It’s widely recognized that its civilizing influence on mankind is incalculable. This brings to mind a comment by my Ukrainian History professor at university. Explaining the Greek Orthodox custom of a lengthy Christmas Season he said, “Some people have a problem with the longer festive period, but with its family-strengthening traditions of relaxed gatherings with good food and warm, stimulating company, it seems to be closer to the way Christmas was meant to be celebrated.”
After his Winter 1988 visit, our friend Bodo echoed similar sentiments.”Es ist doch wunderschön, drei ruhige Feiertagen geniessen zu können!” he concluded. (It’s wonderful to be able to enjoy three peaceful Holy Days!)