It’s a bitterly cold day at Springville Hutterite Colony in Alberta. I have joined the potato caucus and after a morning of peeling vegetables the women are off to the colony school to see how the Christmas concert is shaping up. The concert has generated as much excitement around here as the Academy Awards and the expectations are high for the 20 students in grades one to eight.
We arrive unannounced but the 2 mainstream school teachers are gracious when the women ask for a command performance. The students line up at the front of the class and sing Oh Christmas Tree. The song clearly needs some polish and Lena Hofer goes effortlessly from lead potato peeler to professional music critic.
“Da children are off key and should sing louder,” she announces, not hiding her disappointment.
“I know,” says Mrs. Harder abit exasperated. “We’ll iron out the creases by the 22nd.”
“Okay,” Lena nods hopefully motioning for us to leave.
Apart from the concert the Christmas highlight on most Hutterite colonies is the traditional gift called, Weihnachtsgeschenk, a yearly extravaganza into the taste bud wonders of the outside world. Orders are placed with wholesalers in July and just before Christmas the colony manager and his wife go to town to collect a half ton truck full of store bought treats. Containers of dates, figs, nuts, cookies, chocolate bars, assorted crackers, hard candies, gum, oranges, grapes, apples and pop are brought to the community kitchen to be divided by the Head Cook and distributed to families. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve just sprung from the womb or are halfway to the Promised Land each member gets an equal share.
No one is as excited by this annual windfall as the colony children. As a young girl, I remember waiting impatiently with my friends outside the community kitchen at Fairholme Colony our cheeks as red as McIntosh apples and our little hearts thumping. When the doors to the kitchen finally opened, it had sprung mounds of candy the size of the Alberta foothills, each marked with respective families’ initials.
At the Christmas concert later that week there is standing room only in the small school room. As I squeeze into my seat I see Lena perched in the front row her head bobbing left and right drinking in every detail. At center stage is Mary as still as a painting with a pale blue cloth draped over her head and a baby doll in her arms. Just like school Christmas concerts in mainstream society it’s the children’s foibles and missteps that provide the most memorable moments.
One of the feathery ends of an angel wing is tickling the face of a little boy in a sheep costume and despite his best efforts he sneezes. A shepherd holding a lit candle accidentally sets one of the sheep’s ears on fire. Lena bolts from her seat and claps out the flame with her bare hands. A lingering odour of burnt wool permeates the room as the concert begins. The singing is still off key but the audience is delighted; no one minds when tails rip, wings break, and baby Jesus falls off Mary’s lap.
After the performance, we spill into the cold December air, the succulent aroma of roast pork drawing everyone to the community kitchen. A long table has been set with baskets of fresh buns, platters of pork, Shuten Krapflen (deep fried cottage cheese pockets), buttered peas, pickles, brownies and ice cream.
After table grace, everyone dives in. The concert has chins wagging but the sheep’s scorched ears are getting the most mileage. Lena is thrilled with her command performance as a fire extinguisher.
(the above is an excerpt from Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen)
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