Guided only by lanterns, flashlights and candles, a hundred people gathered at the Mt. Zion Church in the Hill Country Friday night for the annual old-fashioned Christmas program. Pews were filled and the front doors were left open so the overflow crowd could participate from the front steps of the 186 year old church.
In his sermon, Rev. David Rittenhouse focused on the kinds of gifts we experience in life. Of course, as children, all we can think about are the gifts Santa Claus and family will bring us, but as we age, we change our thinking to what kinds of gifts we can give to our loved ones.
The most important gifts of all are those given by God – the universe, our lives and everything we have.
“God’s gift isn’t earned,” he said. “You have to accept it, you have to receive it. Gifts are to be received. When you think about it, forgiveness is a gift from God. We can’t earn it. All we can do is accept it.”
Rittenhouse recalled his childhood Christmases. He and his siblings didn’t make wish lists, and they didn’t ask for gifts. They were given what their parents got them.
“One time, when I was a teenager, probably about fourteen years old, my dad bought a wood lathe at a sale and he hid it in the cellar and you know what happened? He forgot,” Rittenhouse said. “It was after Christmas one day, it hit him, that he had bought us a present, and he forgot to give it to us.”
Building on the idea of forgotten gifts, Rittenhouse added that gifts are meant to be used. He gave the example of having bald tires and keeping a brand new set of tires in the trunk instead of using them.
“Those tires were meant to be put on the car and run,” he said. “The gift of the Spirit. It’s meant to be used. It’s meant to be part of our life, not be tucked away unused somewhere.”
After accepting the gift, Rittenhouse said it is also important to pass on the gift to those you love. He pondered how he would ever repay his parents for all they did for him, and he answered his own question by saying all he could do is pass it on by doing the same for his family.
“You pass it on to your kids and they pass it on to theirs,” he said. “There’s an old song that says ‘pass it on’ and that’s what God asks us to do. Accept His forgiveness that you didn’t deserve and didn’t earn, and extend that to other people around you.”
After the sermon, there was a small group performance of a live Nativity.
Angela Taylor, as the Angel, read the Christmas Story. Mary and Joseph were portrayed by Kinley Taylor and Keaton Baldwin. Draven Hannah was a shepherd and the three kings were Tony Duncan, Matthew McQuain and Wade Taylor.
The performance was extra special because, as Anita Workman explained, most of the actors are direct descendants of the families who built the church in 1836.
Workman shared stories from her family’s history with the church and community.
“There is a short Christmas story of this old church I think I need to tell,” she said. “In 1938, a set of twins, whose family attended this church, was born on Christmas day. One girl and one boy. They named the boy Joseph and the girl Mary, and they were the youngest of 10 children of Roy and Leva Cain.
“This is the story about my grandmother, Mary,” she continued. “As a child, I thought it was really something for her to celebrate her birthday on the same day as Christ. She had to be something special, too.”
Mary shared stories with her grandchildren about going to the church and participating in Christmas pageants.
“She and her niece, Clara Belle, holding the curtains for the intermission, the beginning and the end,” Workman said. “She told us how they would giggle and how the church was full of people. People had large families back then, so there were all kinds of kids. Christmastime was one of the largest gatherings here.
“Imagine the creativity during a very hard time,” she continued. “The people in the community wanted nothing more than to bring joy. There was no money for gas, so folks usually walked from miles around to enjoy an evening of Christmas joy and to celebrate the birth of Christ. People met and sang together, like we are here tonight.”
Although there were hard times, there was always a “poke” for everyone to take home after the Christmas pageant. Bags filled with fruit, nuts and candy were sometimes the only gifts people got.
“Things were hard to come by, especially during the Great Depression,” Workman said. “Most kids didn’t get Christmas presents, but if they came to the Christmas service here at Mt. Zion, they got a poke filled with an orange, mixed nuts and penny candy, provided by the Grimes store just right under the road.”
The store was owned and operated by Anderson and Etta Grimes, Workman’s great-grandparents.
“So many people here have so many stories just like the ones I told you all tonight, and I would love if we could all write those down and keep those memories, so the stories could still be told throughout the years,” she said.