Diocesan News

Tradition begins Christmas celebration in Exeter for 75 years

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Story by S.L. Hansen

EXETER (SNR) - For the 75th year in a row, girls from Exeter and the surrounding countryside will gather in the basement of St. Stephen Church to prepare for the annual Christmas procession just before midnight Mass Dec. 24.

They will be dressed as angels, in colorful robes trimmed in tinsel, with halos to match. One eighth-grader – Kayla Geiger, this year – will don a soft blue costume and take her position at the end of the line as the Blessed Mother, holding a beautiful statue of the Christ Child.

Upstairs, the combined adult and youth choir will sing carols as people gather in the pews. Some of Kayla’s relatives will be up in the choir loft, too, readying a spotlight for the procession.

After a few minutes of silence in the darkened church, with only a few candles flickering, the procession will begin. Each girl will step down the aisle in a glow of colored light as the congregation and choir sing, “Silent Night” and “O Come Little Children.”

The spotlight will change to a pure, radiant white, shining on Baby Jesus as Kayla carries the figure to the crèche exactly at midnight, just as 74 girls before her have done over the previous 75 years. All gathered will raise their voices in the hymn, “Children Run Joyfully.”

Children, run joyfully,
Jesus is born.
Tell all the mountains to sing.
Pray to our Father
in heaven this day;
Thank you, for Jesus is born.

Lifelong parishioner Agnes Anderson is one of the coordinators for the procession. She said that this 75-year tradition was started by the religious sisters who taught at St. Stephen School, which closed in 1967, due to dwindling enrollment. Dominican Sisters founded the school in 1907 and served through 1940. The Felicina Sisters succeeded them, serving the children until the end.

When Anderson’s contemporaries were the angels in the procession, it was only girls in second through eighth grades who took part. That was in Exeter’s heydays, however. Now Anderson includes younger girls too, so that at least nine or 10 girls are in the procession each year.

The hand-made angel dresses are stitched as needed. Originally, they were all made of white fabric. Colored cellophane – red, blue, green yellow – was taped together in a long scroll and manually unrolled in front of the spotlight to change the hue for each angel.

“This is pretty antiquated, I tell you,” laughed spotlight crew member Marion Geiger, who has been a member of the parish since she was born 85 years ago. “It’s a heavy old thing.

Somebody has to hold it, and other people have to be up there to help.”

Sometime in the 1960s, the old white angel dresses were retired in favor of new ones in a pastel array of colors, so no colored spotlight was required.  However,  it just wasn’t the same.

“There’s just something about the darkened church and the spotlight,” Anderson mused. “It’s more mysterious.”

So, the spotlight was brought back.

Little else has been changed. When a different priest comes into the parish, he generally puts his own mark on it – Father Steve Thomlison is bringing musicians from Lincoln this year – but it’s still the same procession that people have looked forward to all their lives.

Mothers and grandmothers remember their own years as angels. Geiger missed her chance at being an angel because she was attending a country school all those years ago, but she was happy that her cousin was able to carry Baby Jesus for the 50th annual procession. This year, it’s her granddaughter who has the honor.

Through the years, there have been all kinds of foibles, but the procession has taken place all the same. One year, there was a brown-out, and the sacristy was completely dark because there wasn’t enough electricity to fire up the fluorescent lights.

Weather has been a problem more than once.

Mary Pribyl fondly recalled a certain World War II era Christmas when she was one of the processing angels. Her uncle was home from the Navy, wearing his uniform, driving her and her grandparents through a blizzard a half-mile from the family farm to church.

“It was blowing something terrible,” she said. “I was the only farm kid who made it to midnight Mass.” 

Anderson recalls many times when the snow was more of a friend than a fury.

“We would come out of Mass and it would start snowing,” she said. “It was a beautiful time for me…. It’s special to all of the young girls in Exeter.”

All are welcome to come to St. Stephen Church in Exeter for the Christmas midnight Mass. Prelude carols will begin at 11:45 p.m. 

“I wouldn’t want to be in Rome for Midnight Mass. I wouldn’t want to be in Bethlehem,” Anderson said. “I’d rather be here because it means so much to me.”

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