Each year I write a story for our family’s Christmas celebration. This year I took information from several historical documents of the Mennonites that came to the Kitchener / Waterloo Region, and wrote a historic piece that describes the newcomers (English and Scottish) that were coming into the region around the time of the two crop failures of 1816 and 1817. At this time many of the Mennonites returned to Pennsylvania, but two leaders stood out as community builders and bridged the cultures of the groups. Their willingness to reach outside of their immediate culture and be inclusive is what I try to capture in this story.
CHRISTMAS COMES TO SCHNEIDER’S HOUSE
“You have come at a very busy time of year, my friend.” Joseph Schneider looked over a split-rail fence as he acknowledged the presence of his friend, Pastor George Erb. “The English and Scottish newcomers are all scrambling to finish up their houses before winter sets in, and we can’t keep up with the supply of lumber they need.”
“That must be good for your business,” replied the older Mennonite clergyman. “I see that you have a number of the Waterloo boys working for you. How many of them are under your employ?”
“There are two of the Schneider nephews, and one of the Bauman cousins. I’m thinking of hiring another teamster to deliver the lumber to the homesteads of these settlers. They are so busy building their houses that they don’t have time to come into town. They all want to have their home set up by Christmas, and that’s only a couple of weeks from now.”
“Those boys, they are good workers, yes?” Pastor Erb probed. “You would hardly know that we are in the middle of hard times.”
“Well, I couldn’t have finished building my house without the mill and without their help. They’re my best workers ever since they came back from the war. I know we’re not supposed to see any good in war, but it taught them to work hard and obey orders.” Joseph Schneider finished sawing a burl from a rough piece of lumber that rested against the fence.
“And they learned how to get along with the auslanders – the English. They have some things to teach us about dealing with our newcomers.” Erb helped his friend lift the lumber into a wagon. “That’s why I have come to talk to you.”
“I thought you came to see my surprise. Remember, last week at church? I told you I had something that only you could see, and I think you will be quite pleased with my special offering. We all need to keep our hope alive, don’t we?”
“Keeping hope alive has been difficult, especially this year.” Erb wiped his brow. “The summer of 1816 will be remembered for many things – frost on the first of June, another frost in July, and two in August. The crops never had a chance. How many of our people have returned to Pennsylvania, just in the last months?”
“Just from the Schneider clan, at least three families. They gave up when they saw us wearing winter jackets at harvest time. They’ve only experienced the last two summers and I think they saw this place as uninhabitable and hostile. The thought of another cold winter was too much for them.” Schneider started towards the barn, followed by his friend.
“Well, it will be cold this winter, there is no doubt. What do they expect? We live in Upper Canada! But that’s no reason to head south.”
Schneider stopped at the barn door. “I’ve spent too much time clearing the land and starting a life here in these German lands for me to think of going back. One cold winter won’t scare us away.”
“But at least you,” Erb pointed to the newly constructed farm house, “in your brand-new home, will not have to fear the cold. It is a fine house you have built.”
“This is what I do not understand about those who have gone back to Pennsylvania,” Schneider shook his head. “We have come to build a life here and we have been treated well by the Queen. We have this land and a place where we can worship and live the way our faith tells us to live. But to leave all this, just because of two bad crops! I didn’t travel those 51 days and cross the Niagara to spend nine years here and then leave it all. And what are they going to find in the new republic – What do they call it? The Union of United States?”
“But are you not afraid that we might lose our way of life – just like those who left for Pennsylvania are in danger of losing theirs? During the war the Americans talked talk about freedom and liberty from the English, but now they are pressuring our people to become just like them.”
Schneider cleared his throat. “The way I see it, we can try and run and stay isolated – maybe find a new place, who knows, out west or up north. But the world will catch up and find us there too. We need to learn to live with those that are neighbors – learn to coexist and live in this land.”
“You are right, my friend,” George Erb agreed. “The Lord has put us in a pleasant and abundant land – we should be grateful for that. But not everyone agrees with you or I about the way we welcome and work with those who are not German.”
“They’d better get used to it. This place will grow, and before we know it there will be a town here; then schools, then more people. You can’t keep our little hamlet – what did the Englishman call it the other day – Erbsville? They are naming it after your uncle,” Schneider smirked and Erb scowled at the mention of the makeshift name of the new town. “It won’t be a little German town forever. One day it might be a great city, just like any other European capital.”
“Oh yes – why don’t we just call it ‘New Berlin.’ The greatest German city on this side of the Atlantic.” Erb managed an awkward laugh. “You, my friend, are truly crazy if you think this wilderness will become more than a patchwork of farms and hamlets.”
Schneider grew serious. “No, I my friend, see this place growing – and I will be the one who supplies and cuts the lumber for those who come here to build a town. Then, no matter if the crops are good or poor, or if we have a rainy, cold the summer, I and my family will be blessed and taken care of. We cannot just hope that the crops will be good. We need to have other ways to make a living.”
“But we can’t all have a lumber Mill,” Erb interjected. “Farming is the only thing that many of our people know.”
“That’s exactly why I asked you to come,” Schneider said with a wink. “Come, see my new business venture.” He opened the door, which squeaked on it’s rough hinges.
As soon as the door opened, a large horse bolted to the front of its pen, snorting and making its displeasure known. It was a giant of a beast, standing eighteen hands tall. Erb was startled by the advance of the horse and stepped back.
“What is this?” Erb asked. “What breed is this and where did you find a horse like this?”
“This is a Brabant,” Schneider explained. “It is a draft horse that comes from Belgium. This gentle giant belongs to the Englishman, Mr. Henry.” He slipped an apple from his pocket and offered it to the massive, beige steed. The horse gingerly took the apple from his hand and gobbled it down in a single motion.
“And this horse, he is now yours?”
“No, no.” Schneider shook snow from his boots. “Some of the English and Scottish do not have money to pay for the lumber they need, so we have done a little trade. I have this horse for three weeks, then it will go back to the Henry farm. He has a team of four Belgiums.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Erb stretched a hand nervously toward the snout of the massive stud. “Is this a payment for the lumber he bought from you? How can the man live if you have taken his horse?”
“This horse,” Schneider explained, “is very valuable – much more than the lumber I cut for Mr. Henry. My plan is to breed this horse with some of my mares, and he agreed to let me use his best horse to help build my herd. Henry will get one colt for every four that are born to my mares. The stud goes back as soon as my mares are bred.”
“And why did you want me to see this?”
“Well, Pastor Erb, I know you need a good horse. You have a mare that could be bred, and with any luck, you might get twin foals. I’d like you to bring your horse here for a week.”
“That is very kind, but what will the other people at church say? This is a very expensive horse and not everyone thinks that we should have dealings with the English.”
“Like I said,” Schneider explained, “we need to learn to live with these people.”
“And that’s why I came to see you,” George Erb watched as Schneider finished feeding the Belgium a bucket of oats. “When you spoke at church on Sunday, you seemed to have a good idea about how to welcome the new settlers.”
“I know everyone doesn’t agree with me, but should we not work hard and do a good job, no matter if it is for one of our own people, or for the newcomers? I think we should look at more than just farming. These English and Scots – they are willing to pay us good money for our lumber and we shouldn’t think twice about working for them. Their money is just as good as our money or the banks of York and Niagara.”
George Erb, to Schneider’s surprise, seemed to agree. “Well, yes – and even more than having them as our customers. These people will soon be here with their families, and children, and schools, and what-not.”
Schneider closed the door to the barn and invited Erb to follow him towards the house. “Have the newcomers as more than just our customers? But you know that the English and the Scots, they are a very peculiar people. What does the church have to say about that?”
“We are called to be a separate people,” Erb explained. “But I know it from speaking to some that there are God-fearing people among them. Mr. Henry says that he is a devout Anglican. The Scottish all seem to be Presbyterians, whatever that is. There are some Catholics too, but each one seems to have an understanding about God. What do you know about them?”
Schneider smirked. “Well, that Scot – Duncan MacDonald – You know who I’m talking about?”
Erb nodded in agreement. “Yes, I know him, but …”
“Well, I’d say he’s more about the scotch than the Presbyterian, if you know what I mean?” Schneider pretended to be taking a drink from a bottle.
Erb rolled his eyes. “Yes, there are some peculiar characters, but they are coming and buying the land from our people who are returning to Pennsylvania. Do you know how many families have come this year? We must have nearly one hundred-fifty people living on this side of the Grand River, don’t you think?”
Schneider stopped and counted in his head. “There are two or three Scottish families, and there must be at least another five families that are English.”
“And they all have children, right? They will soon build a school, right?”
“Yes, but what are you …”
George Erb interrupted Joseph Schneider before he could complete his sentence. “I was thinking. What if we had a special Christmas program for those families? We all celebrate Christ’s birth and who doesn’t like a Christmas program?”
“A Christmas program?” Schneider chuckled. “We will have a Christmas program with the auslanders? In our church?”
“No, no! I don’t think our people are ready for that. But what if …” George looked up towards the new, white house, sitting atop the knoll nearby.
“You can’t be thinking that … Here? My Barbara would never,” Schneider was flustered. “Why here?”
George Erb cleared his throat and began his memorized speech. “If we first had something at a home – a fine home, like this one – it would be a friendly gathering and not a formal church service. It wouldn’t be so strange for them.”
“So strange for them?” Schneider objected. “I’m already in trouble for dealing with the newcomers in my business, but if we have them in our home, what will our own Mennonite people think? And I’m sure that we would have this “gathering” in English, yes?”
“That’s another reason why it’s best not to do this at the church; many of our own people only speak German and they might not understand.”
“Most of our people wouldn’t understand – some barely know enough English to buy a sack of grain.”
Schneider scowled, but Erb continued. “Speaking of grain – we have to have food. You cannot have a Christmas gathering and not have food.”
Joseph Schneider was not convinced. “And what would we do at this Christmas program?”
“Why, we can have some Christmas singing – I’m sure that there are some songs that we have that are translated. Don’t we?”
Once again, Schneider tried to plead his case. “If we have singing we should be in the church? Why here?”
“Because you know them,” Erb countered. “And they know you and trust you. And beside all of that, you have this lovely home.”
The two men approached the steps of the house. “The home of Joseph Schneider. I can hear the people at church. saying, ‘It’s the place where it all started: First they came singing, and before you know it they were eating, and drinking and dancing and …’”
“All I said is that we should have some Christmas music …”
Schneider opened the door for his friend. “And food! Don’t forget the food.”
George Erb agreed. “Yes, food! Perhaps your Barbara can make those little, sprinkled Christmas cookies, and my Ana, she could make her kuchen …”
Schneider sighed deeply. “We’re going to have them to our home and give them our finest food, yes?” He gestured towards a chair at the kitchen table. “Please, have a seat. I think Barbara has made some tea.”
Erb pulled up a chair and sat down. “Yes – remember, we are to love our neighbor, just as we love ourselves. It was part of my sermon, just last week. Do you remember?”
“But I also think you said that we’re also supposed to be wise as serpents …”
“… and harmless as doves,” Erb quickly added. “Don’t forget that part.”
Schneider poured a cup of tea and offered it to his friend. “I have no problems with working and being paid by these people, but what does this all have to do with Christmas? Why is it so important for us to welcome these newcomers as anything more than customers?”
“You know the scripture, brother,” Schneider shifted to his pastor’s voice. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son …”
“Pastor! You don’t need to preach to me,” Schneider objected.
Erb pretended that he didn’t hear his parishioner’s plea. “And our Saviour, when he came, there was no room for Him in the inn, so he was born in a stable and laid in a manger. He came to a world as a stranger – like an auslander! Look how they treated Him!”
Just at that moment, Catherine, Schneider’s eldest daughter came in. She stopped at the entrance to the kitchen, realizing that the men were in the middle of a serious conversation. She stood silently and watched as they continued.
“Pastor! You don’t need to remind me of these things.” Joseph Schneider was surprised at the sharp tone of his voice.
Erb also backed down, noticing the surprised look on Catherine’s face. “No, I do not need to preach anymore. But I do need your help, Joseph. Our people need to see these newcomers as more than an intrusion, or even as our customers. We need, like you say, to learn to live with them and build a community where we can all thrive. Maybe there is something we can do to show them the love of God. Is there a better time for us all to start then at Christmas?”
Schneider took a long sip from his teacup. “You said that God loved the world, right?”
Erb nodded in agreement. “All the world. The English, the Scots, and the Germans. He loves everybody, even those we might not want to love.”
Joseph looked towards his bewildered daughter and continued, “and when the Saviour came, there was no room at the inn for him?”
Erb followed Schneider’s glance, looking towards a less startled Catherine. “We’d be teaching our families and children an important lesson.”
“And we’re supposed to love our neighbour as ourselves, right?” Schneider glanced outside, noticing a sleigh passing by on the road in front of the house. “Like maybe, Mr. Murphy out there.” He pointed with a nod of his chin.
Erb smiled and chuckled to himself, “I think you’re getting it.”
“And you want us to have a Christmas program, right here at the Schneider’s home?” Catherine’s eyes grew big at the mention of the idea.
George Erb couldn’t seem to contain himself, “That sounds like a great idea! I wish I had thought of it myself!”
Shaking himself from a trance-like state, Joseph looked skyward, “I don’t even know where we could begin? What could we do? What do we have in common?”
George Erb pointed to Catherine, inviting her to come closer. “You have been working with the children to prepare for the Christmas Eve service, yes?” She nodded. “And you are a good singer, right?”
Joseph Schneider interrupted; “Yes, she is a very good singer, but do you know any songs in English? I don’t know if …”
Sensing that it was an appropriate time to speak, Catherine assured her father. “What about Stille Nacht? When we went to York last year, in the week before Christmas, I heard them singing that song on the street corners.”
“It’s an English song?” Schneider was curious. “I don’t remember that!”
“Yes! They call it ‘Silent Night,’ but they sing it to the same music.” Catherine started to hum the first bar of the tune.
“I love that song,” Joseph started to sing, sputtering as he tried to remember the words. “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…”
George Erb smiled, his mission apparently complete, “Maybe we should listen to see if Catherine can sing it.” The two men looked at each other and laughed. Catherine sat, embarrassed, but willing to help with the newly formed plan.
The winter of 1816 promised to be a harsh, cold season for the settlers of the German Lands in the Waterloo District. A cold summer was marked by multiple frosts and a devastating crop failure. While many of the Mennonite settlers of the group were packing up and leaving the region, two men stood out as determined to build the community for their families; a place where they could practice their faith, and a place where the new English and Scottish families could also build their lives. It was a special time; when Christmas not only came to the Schneider’s house, but it also came to Joseph Schneider’s heart.