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Christmas Countdown #6: An actual fight during the Christmas program

Christmas: It was our little church’s favorite time of the year, but not only for the magnificent opportunity of celebrating the coming of Jesus Christ to give salvation to mankind – we had another reason for intense joy.

We also loved the Children’s Christmas Program.

With the twins.

This memorable night happened somewhere in the stormy, snowy evenings of the late 1960s right outside of Chocolate Town, U.S.A. , otherwise known as Hershey, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t exactly a high year of our young lives; my father had abandoned our family, and my mother was overseeing us little ones as best she could, including getting us into a strong Bible church. We found a welcome assembly who opened their arms and hearts to us. Twice a week, the six of us – Bruce, Gwen, Brent, Brad, Brian and Brock (my parents made the naming process “B for boys, G for girls”) – piled into our brown-and-tan Volkswagen Bus and puttered down the road to a small village church outside of Hershey, Pennsylvania known as Independent Bible Church of Sand Beach. We found the name delightful, mainly because there was no sand beach anywhere in sight. To this day I have never been given an explanation for the name, but no matter. The folks were beyond friendly – when you came to the church, you were family, brother. The pastor and his wife were an example of the true definition of the Koine Greek koinonia, exhibiting a true love for family fellowship in a way I have seldom seen since, all these years later. We enjoyed straightforward Bible instruction, energetic small-group Scripture studies and of course, delightful holiday all-church dinners.

And for a little church, we knew how to celebrate the Yuletide season. Gift exchanges, special readings, after-church socials…

The peak of this, of course, was the Sunday before Christmas. The morning and evening services were all dedicated to the storytelling, singing and acting out of the whole scope of the Nativity, from songs of the shepherds to explanations of frankincense. Pastor McClure was at his best, and Mrs. Harmon could really belt out some great tunes on the accordion. We had it all. You got your money’s worth when you came to Sand Beach, my friend.

I was already in quite an expansive mood that snowy day. Weeks before, my next-oldest brother Brent and I, for some reason unknown to me, decided to try out for the Christmas choir. Neither of us could carry a tune in a bucket, but Brent had expressed a desire to join with the adults, and I naturally followed along. Our congregation was so small that we didn’t have a regular choir, so the call was made in mid-November for an ad-hoc choral group to sing the festive season in. We both tried out and were accepted into the musicale with welcome arms – a heady thing for two middle school boys, I assure you. I can clearly remember my audition was after church one morning, and choir director Linda plinked a few notes on the piano as I did my best to match the sound. She merely nodded her head and handed me a Christmas song book. I had no idea how to read music, but, boy, was it ever fun. We were, quite literally, children in a sea of adults; neither teens nor any other children joined the group of twelve. practices were disjointed and talkative. I could tell Linda was really fighting to keep her patience – a small vein on her neck kept dancing up and down.

After three weeks of Wednesday evening practices, our joyous little group of enthusiastic warblers were onstage. That frosty morn we belted out “Away in the Manger” with an energy and vigor enough to make Jerry Lee Lewis proud.

We were raw. We were sincere. What a combination.

After the concluding song, everyone sat staring at us with exaggerated grins. I believe they may have actually been grimacing, but I could never be sure.

Then the evening service arrived, and we plowed through the snowy roads and arrived early enough for the best seats in the house. The outside grew dark but the inside of the church grew more electric – it was time! The kids lined up onstage. The Children’s Program never failed to impress, and this year it looked just as good as any. Angels carrying plastic candles and singing, shepherds plodding along while holding old-man canes as crooks, wise men with oversized headgear – it was classic.

And there they were – the Mahoygan Twins in the children’s choir, situated precariously on the makeshift risers built to hold the whole gamut of toddlers in a bleacher-style position so everyone could focus their Kodak Instamatic 110 at their very own progeny.

Mrs. Mahoygan was a single mom whose only offspring were these two identical balls of nuclear mayhem. She was one of the most gentle women in the church, so we guessed that the kids’ destructive forces came from their father. These two were walking miniature dynamos, unpredictable in their bursts of fury towards one another. That was the puzzling thing; they never bothered anyone except for each other. They were as meek as kittens to everyone around them, but when one of them got the stink-eye from the other, it was Krakatoa unleashed. They would smash into each other and cause destruction better than any grade-B western barroom brawl you ever saw. These two would hammer each other and knock any nearby furniture spinning. It was scary, all that brutality – especially since they were both kindergartners. The two would flail at each other, only stopping when Mrs. Mahoygan firmly applied two viselike claws to each twin’s collarbone region and propelled them toward the nearest exit.

It was time for the program to start.

The Biblical characters were especially on-target tonight. Mary was a steady first-grader with a lisp and a shy demeanor. Joseph was in unusually good form, looking especially dapper in his blue bathroom and rope belt. The wise men were up to the occasion in spite of the fact that they each carried tinfoil-wrapped Pepsi bottles as gifts and their towels kept slipping off of their heads.

Then the children – elevated on the bleacher setting and led by matronly Mrs. McGlaughlin – launched into “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Red-haired Benny sang through his missing front teeth. Tiny Bedelia waved to her mother.

And the Mahoygan twins finished an entire stanza without so much as touching one another.

We held our breath. This could be history in the making. No interaction? Yet there they were, balanced on the third step near the edge (as poor preventive maintenance as I’d ever seen before or since), twittering through the strains.

Come let us adore Him…

Then Tyler Mayhogan swayed.

Just a bit.

But enough to touch Terry Mahoygan.

So Terry nudged Tyler.

And Tyler pushed Terry.

And Terry shoved Tyler.

And Tyler walloped Terry, knocking him off the stage.

But Terry grabbed Tyler’s snowflake sweater and pulled him overboard. They dropped three feet to the ground with a thunk.

Neither cried, but they lit into each other like lightning unleashed. Wham. Sock. Pow.

They were rolling around while the rest of the group stared at them, squeaking out God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. There was a full all-out fight, but Mrs. McGlaughlin would not be denied; she had a cantata to finish, by golly. She pumped her arms like she was Leonard Bernstein. Terry and Tyler had each other in a headlock. The crowd was howling with glee. Mary and Joseph were transfixed at the violence, with Mary hugging baby Jesus a little closer. Mrs. Mahoygan came down the aisle and clasped her vise-grip on the boys, hauling them down the middle aisle and silently mouthing “I’m sorry” to everyone.

No Handel’s oratorio could complete the satisfaction of the evening. Even Pastor McClure wiped his eyes and had to control himself from laughing all over again.

“The shepherds were sore afraid,” he said grandly, “and in a little bit, I think we’ll see some who will just be sore.”

The congregation roared with laughter.

I turned to look. Mrs. Mahoygan was sitting near the back row, smiling shyly. People around her were patting her shoulders and smiling. The twins were safely on either side of her, calm as lambs. She didn’t spank them; in fact, I think they were all placed first in line for cake and cookies afterwards.

Again and again lately, I think of the out-and-out joy we had through those years. I can honestly tell you that Jesus was the sole center of our joy. The Savior Himself said “I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.” Well, that’s what we had – an abundance of joy. We were all together. We were happy. We were country. We were poor. We were family. Ah, it was so delightful. We saw Jesus give us joy in so many small ways.

The teens who gave a testimony about leading someone to Christ while walking downtown and sharing Jesus.

The mothers who scrimped and saved so we could all enjoy a pie-filled outing at the pastor’s family house warming party.

The days and weeks that we all – and I mean all ages – carried bricks and dug with shovels so that we could put an addition on the western side of our little church building.

The nights of hearing a backwoods itinerant evangelist talk about God’s love and power, giving us deep reflection on the Father’s magnificence. Many lives were changed in those services.

The anonymous donors of bags of corn and cucumbers left on our back porch when we were too poor to afford groceries.

The special, sweet times of group prayer, combining the elderly with the elementary age. None of us felt uncomfortable. We all kneeled together and we joined in that blessed privilege called prayer.

It’s a wonder of salvation. This season, we are reminded of the Jesus of the Nativity who has opened the door for us to have salvation after these earthly years, but never forget – He’s made it possible for us to have a great time in the years we have now.

Fun. Laughter. Miracles. Blessings.

And the Mahoygan Twins.

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