All photos/art by Christian Kozowyk
In 1909, a young New Hampshire farm girl named Lucy Wells looked forward all fall to the event of the season: the Christmas pageant at South Danbury Christian Church. Weeks ahead of time, she set about making presents by hand for her sister Caroline and her parents, and throughout November she practiced her part in the program with the other children in Sunday school. The poet Donald Hall wrote a tender children’s book, Lucy’s Christmas, about the girl and the pageant. He described the homely event: the popcorn strings decorating the tree in the corner of the church, the familiar carols, the children in the church’s hallway tugging their Wise Men’s and shepherds’ costumes on over their regular clothes in preparation for the Nativity tableau. It’s a small-town story that feels nostalgic and old-fashioned and familiar; the pageant part, anyway, is still played out in hundreds of little churches and schools across New England at this time of year.
In South Danbury, however, it’s something more than nostalgic. That young farm girl was Donald Hall’s mother, and the farmhouse in nearby Wilmot where she made her Christmas presents–a doll from a wooden clothespin for Caroline, a fountain-pen wipe from pieces of colored flannel for her friend Rebecca–is the family homestead where Hall himself has lived for nearly 40 years. The church is the same simple, white-steepled, clapboard icon that has become almost synonymous with rural New England village life. The sanctuary got electricity in 1930 (it’s still waiting for plumbing and running water), but almost everything else might be the same as it was at Christmas in 1909, down to the painted wooden pews, the old pump organ, and the popcorn strings on the balsam tree.
But the backdrop is only part of the continuity here. Audrey Curren, born in 1917, the church’s longtime Sunday-school teacher (and still church secretary), is Donald Hall’s cousin. She took part in the service herself as a small girl; she has watched her students grow up into parents with Josephs and Marys and Wise Men of their own. On this dark night in mid-December, Mrs. Curren, hair done and dressed in her Christmas best, is sitting again at her usual post, up front near that old pump organ. Townspeople file into the hall and start filling it with the laughter and camaraderie of old friends and neighbors catching up after too long apart. (“My, look how Danny’s grown.” … “She’s no longer a little girl–she’s a young woman!”) For many of them, this is an annual pilgrimage, Sunday sermons no longer the draw.
The pageant has become almost enshrined as a community event, and that’s the reason, more than any aesthetic value, why Audrey Curren and the tiny congregation work so hard to keep it going, so little changed, year after year. South Danbury was once a thriving village, located midway between two of the Boston & Maine Railroad’s busiest stations: Concord, New Hampshire, and White River Junction, Vermont. As late as 1946, 10 trains a day rolled through the village, supporting a bustling center that included the depot, a garnet shed, a store, the post office, a school, and the church.
Audrey Curren, born in a house just down from the church, attended the one-room schoolhouse on Walker Brook Road. She remembers sending letters out on the morning train and receiving return letters later that same day; remembers taking the train back and forth to high school up in Canaan. She returned here after college to teach at that same one-room schoolhouse and became a fixture in the village.
But the garnet mine in North Wilmot played out, the trains stopped, and the Interstate highways took away the traffic on Route 4. The school was consolidated and moved, and the store and the post office shut down. Today, of those central buildings, only the church is left standing; it’s all that remains of South Danbury’s identity.
The congregation has dwindled, as it has for so many white-steepled, clapboard churches around northern New England. Donald Hall, long a stalwart, has slowed down in recent years and rarely attends anymore. He isn’t at the pageant this year; it’s the first he’s missed in a long time. Audrey Curren has had to recruit kids from town to fill out the Christmas program because so few are enrolled in the Sunday school. The turnout seems unusually, maybe worryingly, low. Some folks are hoping that yesterday’s ice storm, which caused the event to be moved back a day, is to blame.
But this is the season of light and promise, and there’s Samantha Opitz in one of the front pews, home from college, cheering on her younger brothers. There’s Gail Kinney from West Canaan, in a Christmas-red blazer; she’s the congregation’s new, energetic pastor–a gift in herself–smiling and getting to know her new community. There’s musician Tom Curren, finger-picking his 12-string guitar, while Sharleigh Thomson sings a soaring and unexpected “Silent Night.” Some life left in the old place yet.
And even that, at this time of year, is beside the point. As Rev. Kinney reminds everyone at the start of the pageant when she reads a poem written by Donald Hall in 1995 but which could have been written in any of the decades before or since:
Christmas Party at the South Danbury Church
December twenty-first we gather at the white Church festooned red and green, the tree flashing green-red lights beside the altar. After the children of Sunday School recite Scripture, sing songs, and scrape out solos, they retire to dress for the finale, to perform the pageant again: Mary and Joseph kneeling cradleside, Three Kings, shepherds and shepherdesses. Their garments are bathrobes with mothholes, cut down from the Church’s ancestors. Standing short and long, they stare in all directions for mothers, sisters and brothers, giggling and waving in recognition, and at the South Danbury Church, a moment before Santa arrives with her ho-hos and bags of popcorn, in the half-dark of whole silence, God enters the world as a newborn again.