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A peek inside family Christmas traditions of the St. James pastors

December 15, 2008

By Jennifer Gallus
Staff Writer

The pastors at St. James Lutheran Church of Howard Lake share tales of the season

HOWARD LAKE, MN - St. James Lutheran Church pastors Michael Nirva and Martin Schoenfeld both admit that many of their Christmas traditions of today center around offering worship services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

With three services offered on Christmas Eve, little time is available for family functions. After Christmas morning service, the pastors are free to visit amongst family parties.

“We work every holiday and every weekend,” Nirva said.

When Nirva was young, he enjoyed Scandinavian traditions with his family, such as lutefisk and Christmas rice.

“Now, I don’t have to eat lutefisk,” he said.

A nut was placed into one dish of Christmas rice, and whoever found the nut had good luck for the year.

“Yep, only one person could have good luck,” Nirva joked.

“This is the only time of year you have a dead tree in your house, and you eat out of your socks,” he laughed.

Nirva is originally from Fergus Falls. He and his family would take the train to Minneapolis for Christmas where his grandfather, who lived in Edina, would pick them up.

Each year, a family nativity set would get an addition as the family would go to Woolworths in Southdale and purchase a new piece. That nativity set was given to Nirva a number of years ago.

Something that has remained a constant for Nirva is the reading of The Christmas Story from the Bible each year. When he was young, his grandfather would read it to everyone.

Now, he, his wife, Lisa, and their two children read it as part of their Christmas tradition, as well.

“We try to be very much about what Jesus did and who he was. We talk about his birth, as well as his death and resurrection,” Nirva explained.

Switching ancestral traditions, Schoenfeld’s parents emigrated from Germany as adults. Christmas Eve for Schoenfeld included attending Mass, and returning home for a special tree lighting ceremony.

“My parents would light the candles on the tree, on the fireplace, and all over the room, while us kids would wait in the entry. When they were all lit, we could come in. It was like a surprise,” Schoenfeld explained.

Schoenfeld’s father would also read The Christmas Story from the Bible, but usually he’d read it in German.

“Then we’d sing Christmas hymns in German. We would open all of our presents that night, and then go to church Christmas morning, as well,” Schoenfeld said.

Today, Schoenfeld’s traditions include cutting down a Christmas tree near Duluth, where he is originally from, on his dad’s hunting land.

“I always go deer hunting up there, so I cut down a tree and bring it home,” he said.

Christmas goose is still a favorite of the Schoenfelds, as well as a German peppernut cookie called Pfeffernuesse cookies.

He, his wife, Janice, and his two children go to Duluth Christmas Day after his church responsibilities are fulfilled.

Janice’s parents also emigrated from Germany, so the family still tries to sing some Christmas songs in German.

A St. James tradition is to sing the first verse of Silent Night in German, which is second nature to Schoenfeld.

Nirva has been at the parish for 17 years, and Schoenfeld for 13 years.

“Many, many years ago the church had lit candles on a freshly cut tree,” Nirva said.

The 131-year-old church sometimes has real trees adorn the dwelling, and sometimes has artificial trees.

St. James Lutheran Church offers mid-week Advent worship Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Christmas worship services are Christmas Eve at 4:15 p.m., 7:30 p.m., and 10 p.m. Christmas Day service is at 9 a.m.


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