My fondest Christmas memories are intertwined with a piece of 3' by 4' tapestry, a needlepoint depicting "The Lady and the Organ," a copy of the Cluny masterpiece which was done by my great Aunt Margaret Schreiner as a gift to her husband, my great Uncle Alexander Schreiner. They were really more like grandparents to my brother, sisters and me, and they gave us all the devotion and kindness any grandparents could give. Uncle Alex was known to most as the Mormon Tabernacle Organist for over 50 years, but to us he and Aunt Martsie as we called her were hosts to a wonderful series of Christmas Eve parties over which "The Lady and the Organ" presided from its spot over the living room fireplace.
My earliest memories of Christmas include a brightly decorated living room in the Schreiner's Mayflower apartment complete with a meticulously adorned tree and traditional Christmas ornaments deliberately arranged on end and coffee tables. The hallway was covered with colorful Christmas cards from all over the world. Party guests, dressed in the Sunday best, included friends and relatives of the Schreiners who literally filled the apartment and were seated at tables in carefully orchestrated groups within the dining room, study and living room under the prominent tapestry.Aunt Martsie created an after dinner program designed to entertain young and old alike. She wore a necklace of Christmas bells which were enthusiastically sounded to herald the beginning of the program as well as to express loving approval of the festivities.
We children were treated to a spirited reading of " `Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Albert Eccles. We also enjoyed a rendition of "What Do You Give a Nudist for Christmas?" by Mary Ethel Eccles Gregory. For Aunt Martsie's Christmas song, she would ask each child present what he or she wanted most for Christmas. Then, for example, when a boy said he wanted a train, the song would be:
"Santa Claus, Santa Claus,
Bring me a choo-choo train!
Santa Claus, Santa Claus,
Bring one to me!"
Each child would thus, in turn, have an opportunity to express his or her desires in turn to Santa via a rousing chorus. Another tradition was Aunt Martsie's adjective Christmas story. She would solicit adjectives from all those who desired to contribute them and randomly add them to blanks in a Christmas story she had written. The result was often hilarious as she then read the story aloud.
Of course, the Christmas story in Luke was an essential part of the program, with various members of the gathering reading scriptures from cards carefully cut out and placed on green or red paper by Aunt Martsie.
Occasionally Uncle Alex, adorned in a bright red Christmas vest, would favor all present with a musical number on his beloved Steinway piano, including a rendition of songs he would play while sitting with his back to the piano with his hands crossed behind him. Christmas carols were also sung, but the accompanist was not the Tabernacle Organist. Instead, his shining moment would be the climax of the party, when, adorned as Santa, he would vigorously ring the doorbell and march in like a jolly German elf accompanied by screams of delight from the children. After issuing a present to each unmarried child whether they were three months or 30 years old, he would give a rousing chorus of ho ho ho's and be on his way. Oh, how we children looked forward to this party! The most devastating thing to happen was to be sick on Christmas Eve and have to miss it.
The party continued under the watchful "eye" of "The Lady and the Organ" over a period that spanned five decades. There was constancy and change, of course. Sometimes special activities were held. I made a large pinata shaped like Santa's head for a school Christmas program which we preserved until the 1964 Christmas Eve party. Musical numbers were often performed by adults or children present. Occasionally carolers would visit during the party, including Salt Lake attorney Arthur Nielsen and his large family of musically talented children and eventually grandchildren.
Gradually the family increased in size, and so the number of friends who came dwindled until the tapestry presided over a family gathering. The program - songs, readings and a visit from Santa remained constant; however, there were still surprises, such as when "Santa Alex" appeared adorned in a bright blue suit because "Mrs. Claus forgot to clean the red one." The Blue Santa became a regular visitor after the unforgettable debut.
Approaching their 80s, the Schreiners had more difficulty hosting such a large, exuberant party but they persevered. The menu evolved from a standard dinner of chicken a la king to a simple dessert of banana splits. My father took over the duties of Santa. Through the last party held in the Mayflower, the tapestry hung over the mantle with stately dignity.
In the fall of 1984, Aunt Martsie was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and we were not sure she would still be with us for Christmas. Yet "The Lady and the Organ" must have wanted her presence for one more performance for, miraculously, she rallied and was able to attend the Christmas Eve party one more time and contribute her marvelous charm and wit. She commented that she had been unable to go out and provides presents this year but would try to produce something the next year "with interest." The interest was paid through a legacy and treasure of memories from a lifetime of love that ended in May 1985.
Uncle Alex passed on to be with his beloved Margaret in September of 1987. Following the funeral, we had a small family gathering in the Mayflower apartment for the last time. We spent a nostalgic afternoon reminiscing about the Christmas Eve parties and delightful experiences we had enjoyed there as children and ultimately with our own children, who remembered how Aunt Martsie and Uncle Alex had "made everything so special."
Finally, it was time to go. Before I left I had to slowly walk through the apartment one last time, finally stopping for one long look at the tapestry above the fireplace, to hear one last magnificent concert of loving and cherished memories, with the last and strongest chords and runs being a medley of unforgettable Christmas carols with chimes of Christmas bells on a necklace played in the background.