28: The Church Organ

28: The Church Organ

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

The Church Organ

Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.


Angel decorations adorned the Christmas tree beside the pulpit. Dozens of poinsettia plants covered the floor in front of the altar. Candles flickered on windowsills. Thirty minutes before the Christmas Eve service was scheduled to begin the sanctuary was already half-filled. Children, clad in fancy dresses and dress shirts, fidgeted. Adults wished each other the best of the season.

My husband, daughter, and I would spend Christmas Day with my in-laws, a large, exuberant gathering that included a lot of excited children, presents, and an abundance of food. On Boxing Day we would drive to the country to celebrate with my parents and my brother’s family. But Christmas Eve belonged to our church family.

We’d been members of this small congregation for several years, drawn by its open, accepting welcome, its caring attitude, and the willingness of members to step forward and do what needed to be done. The sense of community in this city church felt like that of the small town I’d grown up in.

More families filtered in, some with three or four generations celebrating together. We greeted friends as they walked by. My daughter raced to the back of the church to meet a friend. Ushers added extra chairs. Smiles filled the room. Above the buzz of happy anticipation, Donna, the organist, played a selection of Christmas carols. On this cold, winter evening, I felt warm and blessed.

The Christmas Eve service has always been an important part of the season for me. As a child I always performed in the children’s pageant and, after the service, visited with my cousins. This Christmas Eve, as an adult, I sat and enjoyed the beautiful prelude of carols. Donna knew how to really make that old organ come alive, and the choir had been practicing for weeks. I looked forward to hearing them sing, and to the climax of the service, when the lights would be dimmed, candles distributed, and we would all sing “Silent Night.”

Suddenly, the organ boomed. Well, it was actually more like an explosion. Donna threw her hands into the air and shouted, “Oh my God!” These were words not unfamiliar in a church setting, but meant to be used in a somewhat different context. The stunned congregation collapsed into silence. A wisp of smoke ascended from the organ. Donna stared at it with shock and disbelief, as if she’d been betrayed by a trusted friend. Clearly, the old organ was done.

My blissful feeling turned to unease as I wondered what would happen to the service now. Would the entire service be stopped, or, would it continue minus music? We could easily sing the familiar carols a cappella. Could the choir still perform? Would we skip some planned hymns? Perhaps our minister could accompany the candlelit singing of “Silent Night” on his guitar, the instrument the carol was composed for and originally played on.

A movement in the sanctuary interrupted my private re-planning of the service. Val, a member of the church, dashed across the room, quickly sat down at the piano and immediately began playing where Donna had left off. The congregation breathed again. A hum of relief accompanied the piano as people whispered to each other.

The service proceeded as per plan. We sang carols. The choir performed. The minister spoke of the meaning and miracle of Christmas. Near the end of the service, with lights dimmed and candles in our hands, we sang “Silent Night” with joyous awe and with gratitude for the miracle of helping hands among us.

Shortly after Christmas, fundraising for a new organ began.

We have used the new organ for many years now. But the story of that evening has become part of our folklore, recounted from time to time when someone asks, “Do you remember the Christmas Eve when the church organ blew up?”

~Donna Janke

Winnipeg, Manitoba

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