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An old-fashioned Norwegian Christmas

December 18, 2010
The Alpena News


News Lifestyles Editor

The congregation may be small but the sense of heritage looms large at Leer Lutheran Church.

Article Photos

Founded in 1882 by five Norwegian families, the picture perfect country church is still attended today by a core of descendants from its founding members.

"All five families started out in Alpena first," said member Linda Pletcher. "They worked in the lumber mills until they had money to buy land."

Ultimately, the families of Enger, Gulleksen, Markusen, Christopherson and Olsen bought property in what became the community of Leer. According to Pletcher, they initially worshipped together at a Norwegian school in Leer until they raised enough money to build their church.

That original church building, which still stands today, was constructed in 1900. Fourteen years later, a parish hall also was erected on the church property.

In a nod to the Norwegian heritage of their forebears and a much simpler time in life, Pletcher and three other ladies at the church have planned an old-fashioned Christmas at Leer celebration that will take place Sunday from 2-5 p.m. Those attending will gather first for carol singing inside the church. That will be followed by a Christmas luncheon or a "cold board" as it would have been called in Norway, plus a variety of crafts, much visiting and the decorating of a Christmas tree.

Foods spread out for the cold board in the parish hall will include both a Norwegian flat bread called lefse and a Norwegian Christmas bread called julekaga.

"We'll serve what they would have had," said Pletcher, while rolling out dough for the lefse with fellow church member Joyce Wirgau. "In Norway, everyone makes lefse. It's sort of like Mexicans make tortillas. There will also be cheese and lots of cookies. The Norwegians made many kinds of cookies."

One of the personal items that Pletcher treasures concerns both the church history and her own family's past. It is a booklet written by her mother when she was 86-years-old.

The booklet describes what Christmas was like in and around the Leer church when her mother was just 7 years old back in 1926. Illustrations and writings talk about how the tree decorations consisted of homemade popcorn and cranberry strands as well as colorful paper chains.

Some of those same decorations will be replicated by those at the old-fashioned Christmas at Leer celebration. Added to the decorations will be traditional Norwegian red and white paper baskets made in the shape of hearts. The baskets will be filled with candy and hung on the tree.

The currently unadorned pine is set up in the parish center. Once it is decorated Sunday, members will gather around it for a short ceremony. Then the tree will be carried outside, where pinecones smeared with peanut butter and other treats for the birds will be added to it.

"Feeding the animals is a Scandinavian thing," Pletcher said. "Christmas was a time when you did that."

Attendance at Sunday's event is by free will donation. Any money raised will go toward the church's recently established Leer Heritage Foundation, whose purpose is to provide the necessary resources for preserving the church buildings and the church property for the future.

Though at one time the church was supported by 25 different families, attendance on Sundays has since shrunk and now hovers around 35.

The church's leader, Pastor Richard Clapp, chose to attend seminary later in life after he had retired so that he could serve a congregation unable to pay for a full-time minister. Its members, Pletcher said, have started to plan for the possibility that the church may not always remain an active congregation.

Christmas at Leer is one of several events that will be held this year and next to help generate funds for the foundation. Toward that end, Pletcher and her fellow workers Wirgau, Kay Fortin and Ruthann Benson are hoping to make the holiday experience hearken back to days of old.

"Christmas was a lot of fun back then when it wasn't complicated. This celebration won't be formal, but just how they would have celebrated. It might bring back some memories for some," Pletcher said, adding that there also will be several Scotch and Scandinvian touches to reflect other nationalities important amongst the congregation of old.

The public is warmly invited to attend.



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