November is the birth month of both my mother and my father, who is now deceased. Last week the family was missing him and reminiscing about the birthday rituals in our past… The story of the birthday blessing needed to be refreshed, and here it is.
It was 1961. Sunday mornings were undoubtedly stressful for the mom – how could they not be with four little boys to dress. It would be comparable to the circus act where the man balancing spinning plates on the tops of poles, would have to keep rushing back to give the first plate another spin before he got the last plate up and balanced. A completely dressed child would spill something on his shirt, an uncomfortable shoe would be kicked off and forgotten, a squabble would break out and hair would be mussed up, someone would discover a missing button, or perhaps escape outside and find some dirt. Fortunately the oldest, a girl, had learned to dress herself pretty well and even helped with the boys on occasion. It was somewhat safer when all were in the car, but even then… who would get to sit in the front seat on the way to church?
The small white church on the corner lot was where the family had worshiped for the last two generations. Mom and Dad had met there when they were teens. For decades life had revolved around the weddings, funerals, potlucks in the church basement and “youth group” activities. The wide “foyer” (such a funny word) was up a flight of cement steps and through double doors. The bathrooms and classrooms and kitchen were down the stairs to the left. Coats were hung on rods on the long wall which was bisected by another set of double doors with glass panes. These doors were often shut to guard the sacred quiet of prayer or teaching, but were wide open if service had not yet started.
Inside the sanctuary were two sections of wooden pews (another funny word for long benches with arms at the ends). A wide center aisle and narrower side aisles led up to the front of the church where the organ was on the far left next to another door going to the basement, and the piano on the far right. The raised stage was small, only having room for a podium for the speaker, and a short half wall behind which the choir sat. A door on the right side of the stage opened to a small room, where the pastor supposedly constructed his sermons, but most of the children knew it as the place where they waited nervously for their part to come in the Christmas program.
Most Sundays the children would enter, walk up to one of the first pews on the right and slide into place on the smooth wood. They would sit, not still, but sit, as the Sunday school superintendent (often their grandfather) would open the service with a welcome and some songs from the small chorus book. Their mother was often playing piano or organ. Their friends were usually sitting close by so the whispering and giggling would start. Big sister often got to sit with her best friend, but the boys needed to be monitored a little more closely.
Reading scripture was always a part of the opening. Better yet were the times when the “super” would give the Bible reference and have everyone compete to see who could find it first and get to read the scripture out loud. Announcements were given, an offering was taken (often by their father who was an usher), and then, “Who has had a birthday this week?” The honored ones were invited up to the front where a birthday offering was put in the little wooden church bank – coins to equal the age. A jar full of new pencils would be brought out, if the birthday child was old enough to choose one for themselves. Then the congregation would be led in the birthday blessing.
“Many happy returns, on this, the day of thy birth
May blessing and sunshine be given,
And may the dear Father prepare you on earth,
For a beautiful birthday in heaven.”
It was memorized. There were no bulletins, no screens with words, no theater lighting or electric instruments. There were only families together with their God, doing Sunday school and church, worshiping, fellow-shipping, having birthdays and feeling blessed. And for those younger people, the words were said with little idea how meaningful they would become as time progressed.