A Christmas card received by Miss Julia Johnson of Thompson, Winnebago County, Iowa, near the turn of the 20th century.
And it came to pass in those days that a call went out from the choir director that we should gather to carol, and so we did --- often in falling snow, from house to house in Thompson then south into the country, first to the Kloppens, then up to the hilltop where Josie Johnson lived in a “grandma house” just next door to Bonnie and Paul.
The Kloppens as I like to remember them were four in number --- Jensine and Melvin, sister and brother, who lived in the big house; and Gordon and Anna Mae, husband and wife, who lived in the tiny house just west across the lawn.
They lived in a grove --- planted, not native to this prairie where John and Sissel (Grytte) Kloppen, Pa and Ma, had settled not too long before the turn of the 20th century after arriving from Norway. John had arrived as a Johnson (John’s son), but had decided there were too many Johnsons in the world and so had opted to use the name of the farm from whence he had come in Norway --- Kloppen --- instead as the family name.
Ma and Pa built the big house, which tiny Jensine now ruled with an iron hand. It was scrubbed annually (if not more often) from the most distant recess of its attic to the most remote corner of its basement. The tiny house next door had been built when Gordon and Anna Mae married rather late in life (there were no children). Gordon and Melvin farmed in partnership.
The senior Kloppens had been instrumental in building West Prairie Lutheran Church, a breath-takingly beautiful but simple wood-frame building with soaring steeple that dominated the prairie a couple of miles northeast. And to here on Christmas Eve they had traveled for years, first by horse and wagon (or bobsled) and then by auto, to gather each Christmas Eve around the Christmas tree --- erected within the curve of the communion rail and before the soaring wedding-cake altar that could be mistaken for nothing other than Lutheran.
By the time these carolers came along, however, West Prairie had fallen victim to declining rural population and its congregation had merged with a smaller congregation in town to form Zion, the “little” (as opposed to big Bethany) or “synod” Lutheran Church.
The Kloppens were by no means poor, but they were above all else prudent. So as we trooped from the snow through the back door and into the kitchen we found a house much as Ma and Pa had left it. Simple furniture, ferns in the dining room fernery, linoleum on the floors.
Through the dining room to the living room we went, where the Kloppens settled into their chairs around the aluminum Christmas tree --- itself a relic from years past. And we sang --- “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (there were none more faithful than the Kloppens), “Silent Night.”
Filing out, we were fed from a tray of holiday treats as we headed for the cars, then on to the next caroling stop.
Some days later, on Christmas Eve, we would gather at Zion. Melvin and Gordon were the greeters and the master ringers of the bell --- it had come into town from West Prairie and was perhaps too large for a small church, but rang beautifully clear and melodic. That bell had two ropes. One rang it joyfully on occasions like Christmas Eve. The other rope was the toll, used only when one of our number had departed --- there were few sounds more stunning than the dull and somber thud of the toll, clapper only moving against the wall of the stationary bell, one toll for each year of the life of the departed.
But Christmas Eve was a happy time, the bell rang joyfully and all were welcome. The candles were alight, the merry organ played and the Christmas tree shone (off to the side now rather than within the communion rail of this newer and smaller building). And before the service closed, primarily for Jensine, we sang in English --- the Norwegian language had faded from the memories of most but not hers --- “I am so glad each Christmas Eve!” (Jeg er saa glad hver julekveld!), another tradition carried in from West Prairie. And then we went forth.
The Kloppens and many others familiar and beloved now sleep out on the prairie near the memory of old West Prairie Church. And many of the rest of us have scattered.
But I still go back each Christmas to a time that now seems golden --- and was. Glaedelig Jul!