Forty years ago, a very special Christmas Eve service known as Christmas in the Country began a 12 year run in a local barn once owned by Frederick Blaw.
In 1980, Becky Boehmer, local artist and member of Blawenburg Church, approached Rev. Ken Bradsell with an idea for a special Christmas Eve service that would simulate the ambiance of the original Christmas event in Bethlehem. Ken recalls the way it likely began. “It may well have started as a conversation with Becky Boehmer. They (Becky and Brian Boehmer) were new to the congregation, and I recall Becky was painting a mural on the nursery wall. This meant we had chances to stop and chat. She had lots of creative energy and fun ideas. This one was a winner!”
Becky lived on Bedens Brook Road, not too far from a historic house built by John Blaw’s son, Frederick. She proposed the idea of a service in the 18th century barn to the property owner, Cameron Lonergan. They worked together to establish ground rules, such as no candles. On December 24, the first of over a decade of services took place in Lonergan’s barn.
The barn where Christmas in the Country was held.
The Christmas story has been told over and over again for thousands of years. The Blawenburg barn service had music and animals, but it also had the core of the message as told through scripture and the reenactment by actors. Typically, youth would be enlisted to play Mary, Joseph, Wisemen, and Shepherds. Some years, there were real babies to play the part of Jesus. Bernice Van Nostrand especially remembers the 1983 service because her newborn grandson, Alan Sweeton, who was just two months old, played the role Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. His mother, Ginny Van Nostrand Sweeton, held him close for the cold service. “He was the warmest one in the barn,” Bernice said recently.
L-R, Two shepherds, identities unknown. Seated are Joseph (Scott DeKleine) and Mary (Ginny Van Nostrand Sweeton) holding baby Alan Sweeton
“As a Youth Group advisor when Ken Bradsell was at the helm,” Barb Reid said, “I remember taking the kids to the barn the afternoon of or day before the service to set the barn up—arrange the bales of hay. Mrs. Lonergan was there to supervise.” The bales of hay provided seats for those in attendance. There was also a cradle for the Christ Child, the star of the Christmas service. Other than that, no other furnishings were needed.
Rev. Ken Bradsell reads the Christmas story from scripture at the first service in 1980.
Ken Bradsell kept the service fairly simple. “The first service was mostly a carol sing, as I recall.” This would turn out to be the only barn service Ken led since he was called to a new congregation in Albany, NY in 1981. Church leaders and congregation members along with Interim Pastor, Rev. Dr. Randy Nichols, continued the creative service in the 1981 Christmas season. Rev. David Blauw was called as pastor in 1982, and he also continued the young tradition. Over the years, the services grew in popularity and size by word of mouth and newspaper coverage until the barn was filled to capacity.
Music and Mammals
Both music and animals played a vital part in the barn services from the beginning.
L-R Winston Peters and Karen Van Zandt sang while Jotham Johnson on banjo and Barb Blauw on guitar sang and accompanied the Christmas songs.
David Blauw recalls some of the music. “The Naumann family often played acoustic instruments, and one year the Blauw family sang, The Friendly Beasts, with Barb on guitar. Many soloists, duos, and even banjo helped make the season bright.” And all those in attendance joined in singing Christmas carols. No two services were alike except for the traditional story being presented.
“I recall the biggest challenge was getting some manger-type animals into the barn,” Ken remembered. “The sheep were especially stubborn about the whole idea.”
And then there were the goats. David Blauw recalled “… that the main floor of the barn was ancient white pine boards at least 18 inches wide and worn absolutely smooth by a couple hundred years of hay, straw and traffic on it. My kids remember mostly one thing—after we wrangled Clem Fiori's goats by collar and rope to vacate at the end of the evening service, the kids went 'goat skiing.' They had Charlie the goat pull them across the slippery planking. Big fun for a 4th grader and 1st grader!”
Barb Reid also has goat memories. She was playing the role of a shepherd one year, thus having a shepherd’s eye view of a rampaging goat. “I remember just before the service started, a goat came charging into the barn and went directly for one of the three Wisemen, Allison Clancy (nee Tufano). I distinctly remember her dressed as a king. She screamed and went running from the barn with the goat in full and close pursuit.”
Oh, the Weather Outside Was Frightful
One thing that everyone seems to remember about Christmas in the Country is the weather. Over the years it was sometimes mild, extremely cold, wet, or snowy. In other words, it was New Jersey winter weather. One year it was very, very cold and windy with a temperature around six degrees and a wind chill that made it feel like 20 degrees below zero. “If I recall correctly,” Dick Van Zandt said, “the service lasted maybe 30 minutes or less before we all high-tailed it back to our cars. Many had left their car engines running on the road just to keep them warm.”
David Blauw remembered a service when he was forgotten in a rain storm. “One year, when it rained hard at the end of the service, I was inadvertently left alone at the barn to turn out lights and lock up. Barb thought I'd already left with someone else and took the kids home. It was before cell phones. I ended up walking 20 minutes up the hill to the church parsonage by myself in the pitch dark through driving rain. I appeared at our back door soaked to the core, then I had to change and gather myself for the 11 p.m. candlelight service at the church.”
Larry May, who moved to Texas in 1981, only attended the first barn service. While his memory of service details is dim, the one thing he remembered is that it was very cold.
Barb Reid recalled a very snowy service. “I remember a year when we had an awful snow and wind storm. I was holding my nephew Chris’s hand as we were running back to the car, parked farther down Bedens Brook Road in a field. Somehow, he let go of my hand, and I couldn’t find him in the storm. These terrifying few seconds seemed more like minutes. He was probably three at the time. He’s about to turn 33!”
As the service grew in popularity, the barn filled to capacity.
For Everything There Is a Season
As the years went by, the service grew in size. David Blauw remembered that “… the word about the service spread afar and visitors came from the west, from Pennsylvania. (Not unlike the Wisemen coming from the east.) That year we reached capacity, and I'm sure the fire marshal would not have been happy.” Issues of liability, overcrowding, and wear and tear on the Lonergan property brought an end to this local tradition in 1993. The following year, David Blauw moved on to a new position as Chaplain at the Holland Hospital in Holland, MI.
Christmas in the Country had a good run and provided pleasant memories for many people. Perhaps Dick Van Zandt best summed up its success. “We all loved the smell of the hay and the animals in the barn as we re-told the birth of Jesus. It certainly made the spirit of Christmas come alive!”
Did you participate in one or more of the Christmas in the Country services? If so, please share your memories in the comment section below this blog.
The Frederick Blaw house
1. The Lonergans were not the first people to live in the home where the barn is located. It was built by Frederick Blaw, John Blaw’s son, in 1750. It is located close to John Blaw’s home on Bedens Brook Road.
2. In case you are wondering, David Blauw is a part of the large Blaw/Blauw/Blue family that we’ve written about in several blogs. He is the only member of the extended Blauw family to serve as pastor of Blawenburg Church or live in the Village of Blawenburg.
3. While the Christmas Eve event was called Christmas in the Country, it could hardly be called that today. Instead of having fields in front and behind the barn, today there are houses that are part of the Cherry Valley Country Club development on the north and western sides with a golf course fairway on the south side of Bedens Brook Road. It would probably be Christmas in the Suburbs if were held today.
Thanks to friends who provided memories of the Christmas in the Country services.
Rev. David Blauw
Rev. Ken Bradsell
Dick and Karen Van Zandt
Various photos of the barn service - David Blauw and Ken Bradsell
Frederick Blaw house and barn today – D. Cochran
Copyright © 2020 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.