Posts Tagged ‘Mennonites’

Leaves on the family tree

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Summer is reunion season. On the August long weekend my mother’s family, the Klaassens, gathered in Saskatchewan to visit and to recount family history.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that our family is very fortunate in having a wealth of documents detailing its history. We have diaries and memoirs, as well as family registers that go back at least a couple of centuries. Many of these have been translated into English for the benefit of those— probably the majority, by now— who don’t read German (or don’t read enough German, at any rate). Some documents are even available online now.

The benefit of having documents like these is that through them it’s possible to see one’s ancestors as personalities rather than merely names. And larger events take on a new significance and vividness when we see how they affected particular people.

My great-grandfather’s diary, for instance. He faithfully records the weather, who preached at each church service and on what scripture text, what garden produce he took to town and the price he got for it. Not particularly riveting, at first glance. But his entry of August 6, 1934 stating that he got less than one cent per pound for his cabbages, was for me a strong illustration of the depth of the 1930s’ Depression.

My grandfather’s memoirs describe how heavy medical expenses, on top of the effects of the Depression, could completely drain a family’s finances. He admits that things might have been easier if they had applied for relief sooner, but he had scruples about it. “As it was,” he writes, “it took us all through the forties to get back on our feet financially.”

And reading the family registers brings home the fact that mortality rates were once much higher than now. It’s especially striking because, two hundred years ago, parents would re-use names: there might be two Catherines or three Johanns in the same family, but only the last survived to adulthood.

I am grateful for the previous Klaassens who first thought to record these things, and for those who saw the worth in them, who preserved the records and  and handed them on.

De gustibus non disputandum

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Or, in English, matters of taste are not to be disputed. Or, to stretch the concept a little, there’s no arguing with tradition. I’m thinking of how we often feel a strong pull toward things we’ve grown up with, regardless of how our beliefs, tastes or critical faculties have changed over time. This is expressed beautifully and hilariously in the song Zen Gospel Singing by Mark Graham (recorded by Bryan Bowers). In it the singer tells how, despite having left the church become a Buddhist, he misses the four-part hymn singing. He doesn’t believe in that sin-and-salvation stuff any more, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to get his Buddhist friends to sing more than one note at a time.

I had to laugh when I heard this song, because it reminded me of the Christmas songs we used to sing at family gatherings years ago. Some of them are truly lovely; others can be either lovely or drippily sentimental, depending on the day; still others are just not very good (sorry, Mom). Bells are mentioned frequently, as in “Süsser die Glocken nie klingen” (“Sweeter the bells never ring”), “Hört Ihr nicht die Weihnachtsglocken” (“Don’t you hear the Christmas bells”), or “Kling, Glöckchen, kling” (“Ring, little bells, ring”). Christmas trees come up fairly often, too, as in one of my favorites, “Welchen Jubel, welche Freude” (“What rejoicing, what delight”). I sang all these, and loved them, long before I understood the words.

But for a certain subset of Russian Mennonites from the prairies (my extended family included), the crown jewel of Christmas music was “Der Friedensfürst” (“The Prince of Peace”). It’s different from the others: not a hymn or carol, but a choral piece probably written around the turn of the 20th century. It’s composed of several short sections, with each pair of lines in the text having a different musical setting. It sounds like it was written in the popular-song style of the day. Once, at a carol-singing evening at the church we attended in Toronto, someone brought out copies of “Der Friedensfürst” and we sang it. Those of us who knew the piece were thrilled; those who were new to it didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

To this day I am not sure if it’s a good piece of music, objectively speaking. But that’s not the point. The point is that we used to sing it every Christmas, and now we don’t. And if, at some Christmas gathering, someone were to pull out a copy of the music, and if there were at least two other people in the room who knew it, I’d sing it. With feeling.