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Bethel Christmas events represent more than 40 years of tradition

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- This year, two Christmas traditions at Bethel College hit milestone birthdays: 21 and 20. Deutsche Weihnachten, or German Advent, began in December 1985 when professor of German Merle Schlabaugh, then a new faculty member in the German department, decided to organize an event like one he’d experienced in Iowa.

Schlabaugh spent 10 years before coming to Bethel teaching German at Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona. "There was a Lutheran church in Iowa City that did a German Christmas service, and I would take my students to it," he remembers. "One year, we were the choir. It was interesting because it was ecumenical--although the service was Lutheran, many people with different backgrounds came because of the common language, German."

In his first semester at Bethel College, he says, he had "a lot of musicians in my German classes, so I said, ‘Why don’t we try organizing a German service here?’"

For the first 15 or so years of Deutsche Weihnachten, Schlabaugh and his German students did all the planning and organizing, but for the last five or six years, professor of music William Eash has been in charge of the music for the service, which includes Bethel College choirs, smaller ensembles and instrumentalists.

That first year, "we had a good turnout and a positive response," Schlabaugh says, "and the crowds seem to get bigger every year." For all 21 years, the service has been held in the sanctuary of Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton.

Also for all 21 years, Schlabaugh has baked most of the German Christmas treats offered after the service in the church fellowship hall. He begins baking two or three weeks in advance because he makes at least 35 dozen cookies. Goodies include such favorites as stollen (Christmas bread, which Schlabaugh buys at Aldi’s in Wichita, a Germany-based grocery store chain), Makronen (macaroons), Kokosecken (literally "coconut corners," a cookie made with coconut and apricot jam) and Zimtsternen (cinnamon stars).

Joe Friesen of Towanda, father of assistant professor of computer science Karl Friesen, makes the Anisplätzchen, or anise cookies, using the recipe of his grandfather, a professional baker.

The service itself follows the patterns of "a typical Protestant service, more like lessons and carols, with readings interspersed with music," Schlabaugh says. Students in his German classes read Scriptures, say prayers and give a brief homily. This year, the readers include two students from the University of Wuppertal, Germany, at Bethel College on an exchange.

Bethel College men’s and women’s choral ensembles and Concert Choir, as well as the men’s octet Open Road, will be singing works by Samuel Scheidt, Johann Sebastian Bach and Dietrich Buxtehude, among others. Margaret Penner, a senior from West Chester, Ohio, will give the homily. This year’s Deutsche Weihnachten will be Sunday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m. at Bethel College Mennonite Church, 25th St. and College Ave. in North Newton.

Bethel’s other long-running Christmas tradition, the Lighting of the Green, began in 1986, so it turns 20 this year.

According to professor of Bible and religion (and one-time campus pastor) Patty Shelly, the idea for the Lighting of the Green originated with Beth Hege, a 1989 Bethel College graduate.

"Beth had been doing some research on the symbolic actions on campus during the Vietnam era," Shelly says, "and she had the idea to do a one-time event of circling the Green with people holding candles as an expression of peace and light at Christmastime.

"She asked me if Campus Ministries could organize that. I thought it was a great idea and called a group of students together to help organize it. It happened on the Sunday before exam week in December 1986."

Immediately after the first Lighting of the Green, Shelly says, "people said, ‘This has to be a tradition,’ and so it has become."

The pattern of the service has remained basically the same, she says, with people gathering in the dark on the sidewalks that ring the Green, in the center of the campus. There is Scripture reading and some singing of familiar Christmas carols as people light their candles.

"There has been one modification," Shelly says. "Rather than ending the service still standing on the sidewalk, which we did the first year, we invite everyone to walk toward the center of the green and form a giant ‘center of light,’ as the ‘Christ candle’ in our giant ‘Advent wreath.’ This way, people can see the gathering light and hear the voices singing carols from all corners of the Green."

She says the Lighting of the Green has generally enjoyed good weather, although sometimes it has been windy, bitterly cold, snowing or drizzling (or a combination). Even so, she says, "What I really remember is the light."

She recalls that "in 1992, we held the Lighting of the Green in Mem Hall because the weather outside was frightful. That was beautiful, too, and the singing was much better, but it really wasn’t the same."

It takes about 250 people to circle the Green. Although the Lighting of the Green originally involved mostly students, over the years more and more community members have joined in.

This year’s Lighting of the Green begins at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11--90 minutes later than usual because of the Bethel College Concert Choir’s home concert earlier that evening. There will be ushers with flashlights available to help people find a spot to stand on the sidewalk and to hand out candles. The event lasts about 30 minutes and ends with everyone invited to the college cafeteria for cookies and hot drinks.

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