Old Ways fade, but love stays strong: A Christmas Story
Story: Tony Eberts & Pictures: Peter Hulbert
The Province, Saturday, December 23, 1972
Crowded for Christmas: Young and old are among the faithful at Yarrow's Mennonite Brethren Church
Christmas 1972 shone in the eyes of the children, but up on the stage of the austere old church there were memories of hardship and persecution in the music of guitars and mandolins.
These were the sounds that once echoed in the Russian settlements the older musicians were forced to abandon more than four decades ago, sounds that some carried to sod huts on the Canadian prairies and on to this Mennonite church in the Fraser Valley village of Yarrow.
"Only a very strong people with a tremendous amount of faith to bind them together," commented one historian, "could have survived the persecution and forces migration that the Mennonites experienced.
"This binding force was their religion and their belief in God. Their religion was the key to all other things in life ..."
The old ways are dying, say the elders. What famine, cold and suffering could not weaken is caught now in the divisive forces of today's affluence, and many are drifting away from the community and its simple strict Biblical rules.
But last Sunday night the old strength was there again. Yarrow's Mennonite Brethren Church was filled with the songs and prayers of the traditional Christmas music festival and the love that is the chief tenet of the Mennonite belief.
In a hundred homes along the rain swept roads of Yarrow, the kitchens boasted hoards of fragrant cookies and cakes and dumplings, glazed fruit puddings called plumamusse and meatballs and hams and home-made mustard so hot, it is said, that it will defrost a refrigerator.
The stories and songs of the Christ child in the manger seemed to give a special aura to David Heinrichs' big scrubbed white barn that stands just a few yards back from Yarrow's main street, filled with the smells of hay and cattle.
David farmed in Russia as a youth and then for six years in Saskatchewan before coming to Yarrow, where he and his wife and sons have turned some once-flooded fields into a prosperous dairying operation.
The strengths of faith and love show clearly in Johann and Aganetha Toews, who will be visited this Christmas by many of their 112 descendants. Next month, too, they will be special for Johann, 91 and Aganetha, 89, because then they celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.
They were married Jan. 17, 1903, in Samara, Russia and lived later in Siberia before coming to Canada in 1927. Toews took up sketching as a hobby five years ago and one of his pictures, drawn from a childhood memory, shows men on a horse-drawn sleigh fighting off a pack of wolves.
There is warmth in the custom of each day visiting the community's tiny post office (on the main street, a couple of blocks west of the Heinrichs' dairy farm), partly to see about mail but mostly to exchange greetings.
"Most of Yarrow passes through between 8:30 and 9:30 in the morning," says Postmaster John Kehler, who takes pride in the fact that his little brick-fronted building always gets a national "A" Rating on neatness from the postal service inspectors.
Another meeting place is the grocery store of Cornelius Funk, who at 79 remains an active businessman with stores in two parts of the valley.
In the depression days of the early thirties he labored on hop farms or cut wood for 25 cents an hour to support his wife and seven children.
With his meager savings and a great deal of faith he bought a small hammer mill, worked it into a stock-fee business, branched into grocery stores and a bakery and today thanks God for his success.
Yarrow—named for the wild yarrow flower that blooms in the area—was born in 1928 when a group of prairie Mennonites saw the land advertised for sale in a Manitoba newspaper. They came as pioneers to pit themselves against a wild region of bogs and uncleared land.
Formed in 1525 in German-speaking Switzerland, the Mennonites moved in the same century to Holland. Later, a colony was formed in Russia, but its members clung to their German language and original culture. After the Russian revolution of 1917 the Mennonites, as land owners were forced to emigrate. Despite long delays awaiting visas, most finally traveled to Canada and the United States during the 1920's.
Some of these pioneers who still live in Yarrow recall the early months when five or six families shared a single house while they worked together to build others, and to clear and drain their fields.
In those years there were only paths, not roads, in the village. The only road followed the route of the old Cariboo stage line along the edge of the valley, and the post office was housed in an ancient roadhouse.
For many years almost all the settlers were Mennonites who maintained the same close-knit church-oriented society that had kept their communities together for centuries in Europe.
Today fewer than half the residents are Mennonites and the old Bible school that used to supplement the children's public school education contains only church offices and an activities room used mainly by teenagers. There are drug problems involving some of the young people.
Still, the two Mennonite churches remain the village's dominant landmarks and the church elders strive to keep their flocks together. Some of the ancient and restrictive rules have been relaxed such as the outright ban on marrying outside the faith - and church services are in German and English to suit all generations.
Early in December a Yarrow family's home burned to the ground and brought reaffirmation that the traditional Mennonite unity and love remain powerful forces.
Rev. John Klassen, energetic young pastor of the Mennonite Brethren Church, helped organize a community program that quickly found the family a temporary home and brought money, clothing, furniture and other necessities pouring in.
Some of Yarrow's Original Founders; with, right Reverend John Klassen
"The community really rallied around," the pastor reported, "starting at the fire itself, when two volunteer firemen were injured trying to save the house. There's plenty of the old spirit here."
John Klassen has his hands full helping to strike a balance between the tradition-minded early settlers and their children and grandchildren who seek a more low-key approach to religion.
At Christmas his job is easier, because the principles of the Mennonite faith embrace the universal message of the season, of peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
Since their inception in 1525, the Mennonites have been persecuted by rulers and governments for their beliefs that the Scriptures are the highest authority - stronger than any state, church or church leader - and that each man should love all other men, regardless of creed or race.
Typical of those who have successfully bridged the gap between past and present in Henry Ratslaff - settle , builder, farmer, church leader, father and grandfather, At 75, he things nothing of hiking up the steep and snowy mountainside to inspect the village's water system, which he was instrumental in designing and building.
"I wouldn't do it just for money," he said with a grin. "But I helped to put in most of those pipes and I built the reservoir and I've looked after it ever since it began. I guess some day we'll get somebody else to do it - or to give me a hand, anyway."
In the kitchen of the big house that Henry built, Mrs. Ratslaff took a moment away from her baking to pass out some of her mighty stockpile of Christmas cookies.
"This is the best time of the year," she said, "when the children' and grandchildren come home and everything is busy and noisy. We stay in this big house for times like these..."
The Ratslaffs' children have scattered in the winds of change. But, like the old memories and traditions that endure in Mennonite music and prayer, they will be together again at Christmas.
Newspaper Article Courtesy of Mary Froese