Christmas 2022 Cover & Highlights
The photo on the cover, provided by Hans Kaarde Gundesen, organist at Tarm Kirke in western Mid Jutland, seemed appropriate for this Christmas issue, which includes some material sourced from Denmark, some Grundtvig references (note the Grundtvig book on the shelf in the photo), a few articles with a sense of nostalgia as comes with the tradition of arranging a home nativity scene, and, of course, a Christmas theme in many pieces.
The Grundtvig Christmas hymn “Velkommen igen, Guds engle små” gets an appreciable amount of attention, starting with an excerpt from the 1945 book Hymns and Hymnwriters of Denmark by J.C. Aaberg that includes his English translation of the hymn. A more recent translation into English by Edward Broadbridge appears opposite the original Danish lyrics and shows the creativity required for a translation to retain the sense of the original and still be poetic. The article “Christmas Sorrow Is No Crime” is a translation from the original article in Danish by Anne Korshom and takes the same Grundtvig hymn as its point of departure.
The sermon “Tonight It Is Filled” also addresses sorrow at Christmas, Little did Fr. Michael Marsh have any idea of the sorrow that his community would feel this year when he preached this sermon last Christmas Eve in his congregation in Uvalde, TX.
In “A Blessed Christmas,” Ed Madsen recalls Christmas in 1973 and how, despite those troubling times in the country, it became an especially memorable experience thanks to Maria von Trapp, the nanny-turned-mother of the von Trapp Family Singers, who gained fame in the movie “Sound of Music.”
Erik S. Hansen muses on the power of song in his article “Melodies of Life” and offers websites to hear songs to which he refers, including both a sentimental favorite and one in the style of rap. This article is on the Church and Life website where links to these websites are easily accessible from within the text.
The next two articles, “Patches of Life” by Ellen Fensholt Sorensen and “A Treasured Christmas Letter” by Juliane Nielsen, were actually written decades ago. They both show how these two women in their later years have remained engaged in life with a spirit of gratitude.
Both these women attended the Danebod Folk Meeting to which Joel Mortensen, as a member of the planning committee, encourages people to attend in 2023. Then Ricke and Jerry Bly provide news about efforts to upgrade the Danebod campus and activities that have returned as people are more comfortable gathering again.
Ruben Strandskov, from Luck, WI, was noted not only for his joy of gatherings but also for his stance as a conscientious objector in WWII. Part 2 of “Considerations of Conscience” continues with his experience as a noncombatant.
Finally, the lives of Sonja Agnete (Strandskov) Richardson and Don Lenef, both recently departed, are warmly remembered.
The many gift contributions in memory and in honor of people are truly appreciated as is your continuing support through renewals and gift subscriptions.
As this somewhat longer issue is for the observance of the twelve days of Christmas, the next will be a combined January/February issue. Until then….
Glædelig Jul og Godt Nytår!
Patches of Life
By ELLEN FENSHOLT SORENSEN
On the book give-away table at this year’s Danebod Folk Meeting, I saw an envelope with a note on it still sitting out on the final day. The envelope was addressed to Ardis Petersen at Danebod in Tyler, MN from Mrs. P. Sorensen in Oak Park, IL. The post mark was August 19, 1991. The note on the envelope was signed by Asta Twedt. It read "Does anyone know who Mrs. P. Sorensen was? These are three beautiful pieces she wrote for a writing class and sent to my mother. She had a son, Martinus. Please take these if they mean something to you. They are of historical value."
Though not personally meaningful to me through any family connection, I thought that, as editor of Church and Life, I could take the envelope and let it be known through the publication. I did some genealogical research and made the connection to Mrs. P. Sorensen’s daughter, Ardis (Sorensen) Cicchella, with whom I had corresponded last year regarding a memorial gift. The envelope and its contents have been forwarded to her, and she gave permission to print this piece.—Ed.
One of the pleasures of a long life is the fuller meaning it can give to language. Take, for example, the word quilt. One of my all time favorite poems is R. T. [Robert P.T.] Coffin’s “Ole Farmer Alone.” In it the word quilt has special significance. It denotes a way of life—farm life. Death has taken the old farmer’s wife, and so he has inherited all her quilts and comforters, among them the quilt that covered their shared bed.
When I was young, the word quilt had no special meaning for me. Then because of certain events throughout my life, that word took on deeper and deeper meanings. Each event had its own images.
When our first child was about to be born, Nanna Mortensen, our Pastor’s wife and my friend, made a quilt for the baby’s crib. “I’ve made the flowers yellow,” she said, “so it can be used for a boy or a girl.” Well it was a boy, then a girl and another girl, then a boy. Much later came a precious little “Princess come lately.”
It pains me now to remember that I didn’t really appreciate the time, talent, and love that went into the making of that quilt. I was just too young and inexperienced.
Many years later when I was about to retire from teaching, my colleagues invited me to coffee and to watch as they made a gift for me. They were sewing the large center block for a quilt. It was fitting that the pattern was of a schoolhouse.
It should have been a pleasure, but oh, for a former seamstress it was torture. It looked as though they had never had a thimble on finger of a needle in hand. Then slowly it came to me. These women, for a friend, had the courage to try something new, and for them, difficult. How dear they were. How I would miss our daily work and companionship.
With the passing years, comprehension grew. I remembered a quilt from long ago. I was five years old. My Mother had made a quilt from old woolen suits—you know how the knees and seat of pants wear out first, and there is still much usable material left. The quilt was made of blue and gray geometrical pieces. The diamond shape was the most fun for a small finger to trace. That quilt covered three little sisters who slept in a large black iron bed.
In a dream, soldiers in blue and gray marched with unsteady gait. Where had they come from? They came from the Memorial Day parade I had watched from the street curb—a curb lined with galvanized tubs filled with fragrant pink and white peonies. They were the last of the Civil War “vets” marching to Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, the cemetery where my Mother would soon be laid to rest. She died in June in the early summer of her life, twenty-nine years old.
The first cold night of the following October, the blue and gray quilt was taken out of moth balls. Once again it was placed over the three little girls. On one side of me slept my older sister. On the other side, my gently and beautiful little sister breathed softly. How could it be that before long I felt as if I was [sic] enveloped in the warmth of my Mother’s body?
In October of 1990, guests from Florida and Montana visited me. The Montana couple, Gerda and Jørgen had just celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Gerda, a teacher and farm wife, had brought pictures of the making of a quilt. The quilt was to be a gift from their family for their anniversary.
There was love and pride and incredulity in her voice as Gerda told the story of its making. Three generations had worked together, Jørgen’s ninety-two year old mother among them. They were all busy homemakers. Think of the planning, the time, the shopping, and the skill necessary for such an undertaking! [Then think of all the sharing of memories in loving conversation.--handwritten in]
I thought about the symbolism of that quilt; the trials and joys and victories of raising a family. I thought about the uncertainties of farm life. What kind of harvest will we have this year?
And finally I thought about the quilt of that great mystery, the marriage bed. The place where a man and a woman, in love, join hands with the hands of God in the creation of a new life.
Thinking back on it all, I recalled a song we had played in our high school orchestra, a song my Father loved—“Oh sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you.”
And, I think, I cannot as yet fully comprehend you, but I accept and cherish you: quilt, the symbol fo [sic] that great mystery-life.
The dark glass through which the word is seen becomes clearer.
And I give thanks.
Melodies of Life
By ERIK S. HANSEN
(Hyperlinks to videos and other websites in red text.)
There are many mysteries in the world: Why does November make us so morose? Or why do Christmas lights nurture us? And what is it about the month of May that revives us after a long winter? Through it all we follow the variable up- or downward trajectory of managing our daily tasks.
Life often seems like an extended opera with a hard-to-follow plot line, though complete with its own soundtrack. Sometimes the soundtrack is just background noise. Sometimes it’s a sweet melody from childhood that repeats itself, much to our delight. Sometimes the voice of the out-sized soprano lady sings way too soon for the opera to be over.
We do have a built-in sound system, after all. The rhythm section plays all the time, whether we notice it or not. Our hearts beat out a rhythmic pulse that sustains us. And each heart has its own personal signature lasting the duration of our individual, tiny-timeline slice of eternity. It plays in syncopation for each of us. Slower at rest. Racing at play. Or bouncing around, erratic from a rush of adrenalin or the wear and tear of age.
This fall I heard variations of the heart-beat rhythm come back while listening to the old harvest hymn “The leaves are falling everywhere” (Nu falmer skoven). The original melody, remembered from the old blue church hymnal of the AELC and earlier versions of the Danish Folk High School Songbook, played itself in my mind a dozen times or more during the course of the season of change, the transition from summer to winter. It’s a tune that gave me my first case of goosebumps, way back in my pre-teen years. I didn’t know what was happening to me. My skin tingled. The hair on my neck stood on end. A rush of dopamine, which, science says, is the pleasure drug produced by the inner alchemy of the body, flushed my skin with a physical manifestation of emotion. The relaxing feeling that followed convinced me that something extremely enjoyable had just happened. The background opera to reality had just delivered its first pleasing aria to a ten-year-old boy.
Now the words of the song come back again this year, as they often do in the fall season. What changed over the years is that I now prefer a newer melody to the song, rather than the old melody we used to sing. The words have stayed the same. The English version by S. D. Rodholm translates nine of the original ten Danish stanzas. But the newer tune seems to alter the message delivered in song. It makes me wonder if the entire plot line of the opera of life can be modified by changing the music.
The original melody is a German folk tune—the one used in the blue hymnal, where it’s cited as being a Danish folk melody. Perhaps it came from that part of Germany held by Denmark before the Schleswig Holstein wars. The lines of verse are by Grundtvig, who wrote the hymn in 1844, before the border wars. A useful online version of the Danish Folk High School Song Book tells a short history for every text in the current edition of the songbook. It notes that this hymn was solicited from Grundtvig by a neighboring pastor to honor an upcoming harvest festival. Grundtvig tried a draft and sent it off, but it was deemed too heavy, too solemn. Disappointed, he went back to rewriting and turned the song into the ten stanza version we know today, still a popular favorite in Denmark.
When Grundtvig wrote the song, it was agreed to sing it to the German folk tune from 1640. That melody is somewhat somber too. As with the passing of the seasons, the falling of leaves, the notes start high on the scale and tumble downward, as leaves do, and end by matching the low note of the tune. The melody captures that melancholy march toward winter, though the text stays the same, portending not an end in winter but a transition to the rejuvenation of spring.
The newer melody is by J. H. Nebelong, though still seemingly old, from 1889. It’s the melody also used in A World of Song (even the original blue ring-binder version from 1941). Interestingly, the Nebelong melody, while far more popular in Denmark than the older German tune, did not get adopted into the Danish folk school songbook until 1993. A World of Song was ahead of its time by fifty years!
Yet, how can we ever really be denied the heart tug of memory from childhood? The old melody starts high and ends each verse of the song on the low note. I still hear it when seeing leaves rustling on the ground. Or in the flight of migratory birds in autumn as the seasons change. Perhaps it was my first glimpse into the transitory nature of life.
The alternative melody, the more modern one, goes in an opposite direction. It starts low, moving up the musical scale, and ends high, in an ascension of sound. Perhaps some of the appeal of the newer melody lies in exactly this paradox. The woods are fading, yes. Leaves are falling and withering on the ground. But this melody makes for a reversal of emotion. As the notes go up, rising in a groundswell until finishing at the height of the musical scale, it seems to rejuvenate the meaning of Grundtvig’s words. Winter is not an end but a transition to a new beginning. The possibility of resurrection occurs just as things are ending.
Musical versions of this stirring melody are available in various online links. One favorite of mine is sung by the Danish Girls’ Choir. But many versions can be found on the internet playing this newer, lighter melody, yet with the same words. And the same groundswell of emotion. The same plot, maybe. But with a twist. We move into new mysteries out ahead.
Soundtrack of Life
An even more dramatic example of the varied soundtracks of life can be found in two versions of another old Danish hymn on the same theme. “Teach me, o woods, to wither happily” (Laer mig, o skov, at visne glad) are the words of another of Denmark’s notable romantic poets, Adam Oehlenschlager, and have many similarities to Grundtvig’s hymn “The leaves are falling.” The opening lines, translated here with some poetic license, are reminiscent also of the popular favorite “Evening star up yonder;” the first verse, literally and loosely translated, reads:
Teach me, oh woods! to fade like you
to autumn’s shifting, yellow hue,
awaiting springtime flowers.
Then green again my tree will stand,
as deep its roots reach in the land
of endless summer bowers.
A traditional version of “Teach me, oh woods” can be heard here, looking and sounding somewhat somber, similar to Grundtvig’s falling leaves. But now, by contrast, a modern rap-style version has been written from the original hymn, performed by the Danish hip-hop artist Per Vers (Per the Poet—his name a not so hidden play on the word perverse!) His version demonstrates the difference between the plot of life’s story and the style in which it is told. It can be played on your computer at this link. The artist Per Vers has also written his own English translation of the text in order to appeal to the multilingual younger generation that likes its music in English. In rap style, his song begins:
Teach me, teach me, o forest, how to wither happy
Beautiful like you, yellow leaves, yellow leaves
It will be green again, come home
A better spring will come home
Let my roots grow in a land with eternal sun
Teach me, o forest, how to wither - just to get by with
Then I'd whisper "Thank God”
Even though I really don't know if there's a God out there
The doubt is pulsating nonstop under my skin
But one thing is the same for poets, politicians and cops
We'll lose all of our senses
Until we only can sing the hymn of truth
About how everything in existence must fade
And everything which fades must fall
And the fall will give a rush in the soul of the all of us
Teach me, o sun,
Who dives into flame juice every night
That you can't teach new dogs old moves
'Cause the wise man's last full stop
Looks like a black hole for the young and dumb
But it's a new initial letter
Of a grass-straw-naut in a lush fruit garden
Where we cultivate* poems and quinces to fall down
'Cause the best of them start and end the same place, they . . .
Bless me with sun and rain
Bless me with sun and rain
So I sing come home, come home, come home.
*The word dyrker in the original can also mean worship.
(The full version of his rap version can be found here.)
Things of the Heart
“What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking.
There is no end of things in the heart.”
So says the poet Ezra Pound in his poem “Exile’s Letter,” translating from the Chinese poet Li Po of the seventh century Tang Dynasty. Perhaps they both anticipate the word stream of the modern world of rap—or the chatter of our daily lives, as it is with us centuries later. The talking is transitory—like life. But things of the heart stay with us. And music helps put them there.
Words speak to the mind; music, to the body and soul. And the rhythms of the heart connect these varied aspects of who we are, both literally and figuratively. In music, the physical is made spiritual. Again, now in the Christmas season, we will listen to holiday songs and the stories they tell. The words reverberate in memory each year, but how much more meaningful they are when sung to the melodies we recall from childhood. After all, we remember them by heart. And what we hear through song evokes the true emotion of renewal each time we sing along.
Bridget Lois Jensen