A Flame In A Manger

Merry Christmas.  A re-post of a perennial favorite.


For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

manger scene 1
I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.
manger scene 2
Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,

“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my dorm room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however.  And and it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:

“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze.  Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.

959 Biers: A Ketzelsdorf Jigsaw

During the early days of quarantine, way back in March, when people hunkered down and embraced being stuck at home, we found hobbies.  Some took up jigsaw puzzles or crosswords.  Me?  I decided to take up the archives at Zamrsk, in the Czech Republic. Yes, I leaned into a side of myself so entirely nerdy that I had to look beyond obsessive crosswords.  I gave into my genealogy geek fully and emerged having learned some things.

The regional archives building houses, among other records, digitized church record books from around Bohemia. The building used to be a jail. This photo was taken on our family trip in 2018.

As I wrote about in previous posts, the Zamrsk archives are the repository for church record books from hamlets and villages in what is now the Czech Republic.  I suspect that we are fortunate that the German Catholic records survived the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from the region after World War Two. We are even more lucky that they have been beautifully digitized and made available to any sleuth with an internet connection.

As I further mentioned previously, the Bier family originated from Ketzelsdorf, now called Koclirov, in Bohemian Czech Republic.  Before World War II, Ketzelsdorf was occupied primarily by Germans, many of whom emigrated to the Rock County region of southern Wisconsin.  The name Bier was overwhelmingly common in the village.  But how common? I wanted to know. I also enjoy spreadsheets. Perfect quarantine project. 

I previously dipped my toe into these confusing waters while attempting to solve a modern-day genealogic mystery that required knowing how a certain Bier and another Bier were related, which required going into these amazingly detailed, and amazingly unreadable archives.  Despite not speaking German, I developed a system for analyzing the various types of data, including birth registries, marriage registries, and death registries.  Thanks to their scrupulous record-keeping and use of house numbers to identify individuals, I ended up with a beautiful spreadsheet of 959 unique individuals–all with the last name Bier.

This is a sample page from a baptism registry book. There were separate books for more detailed birth records, deaths, and marriages.
Here’s a screenshot from my master spreadsheet, a true thing of beauty.

I love my spreadsheet. Is that weird? Perhaps. But I figure, if other people get to proudly post images of their completed jigsaws, I get to post this. In addition to tagging each person by date of birth, they are also assigned to a family group of birth and a family unit of parentage where applicable.

Once I batched all these Biers into family units, I tried to figure out how they all connected up to each other. I made a little index card for each family unit, 161 total.  I innocently expected to build a neat forest of family trees.  Instead, I ended up with a crazily tangled thicket of Biers.  You see part of it pictured below. I kept this on the office wall for several months, as I thought it lent a charming “is she going crazy?” vibe to my Zoom calls.

This is the largest interrelated group by far. There were four others which, all together, represented less than this situation.

So, each of those index cards is a set of parents and one or more children. It covers births from 1718-1920.  The colored index cards are founding ancestors, or what I considered to be founding ancestors, as the earliest record (where? Heck if I know) of Biers in Ketzelsdorf is back in the 1600’s. The lengths of yarn represent a child from the upper index card establishing their own family unit at the lower end of the index card. I followed only male lines, and so every family is a “Bier” family.  This is lazy, but I suspect that if I had traced out every maternal line as well, I would have essentially created a master family tree for all of pre-world war Ketzelsdorf.  And I have a lot of time on my hands, but not that much time.

Once I sorted out all of the interconnectedness (seriously, a LOT of interconnectedness), I ended up with 5 unique thickets of families, all joined through at least one marriage, often more than one.  The thicket that I posted on my wall like a crazed detective is the largest of the five.  It has 10 founding families and 659 people.  All are connected by at least a marriage, most through offspring. 

In addition to being the largest, the family taped up on my wall contains my branch of the family tree. I’ve written before about how numerous the Biers of Southern Wisconsin are. It’s crazy to think that our ancestors are just a teeny, tiny bit in this overwhelming sea. The Biers of Wisconsin trace back to Emil and Emilia, both born around 1750. If you were looking at this and didn’t know that the family up and moved to the United States in 1882, it would be a confusingly incomplete story. I imagine that is the case for many of the terminal index cards.

The Wisconsin Bier line goes Emil & Emilia–>Adalbert & Theresia–>Johann & Viktoria–> Valentine & Katherine Jiru and Anton & Veronika

Groups 2-5 did not have nearly so much intermarriage and were each founded by a single ancestor or two.  All together, these groups comprise 256 total individuals.  For the mathletes among you, that left 44 random Biers that I couldn’t attach to any family group, a satisfyingly small number.  Most of these were children born to Bier women without a named father, which tells an interesting story in and of itself.  In addition to the other 4 thickets, there were free-floating households and individuals that I simply didn’t have enough data or facility with the language to sort out.  When you trace the line down, some of the families “die out” because no further children were had, some were likely mistakes, and some up and left the village.

In addition to a satisfying, searchable spreadsheet (I’m sure I’ll become wildly popular for my spreadsheet) and crazy wall art, I was left with a few random observations.

  1. The Germans were not creative namers.  In fact, one of the few unique names was my great-great-grandfather’s: Valentin.  And thank goodness for that unique name, or I doubt I would have easily located my branch in the tangle.  In contrast to the lonely Valentin, the most common names were:  Franz (127), Anna (97), Johann (87), Anton (73), Maria (64), and Theresia (63).
  2. I mentioned that I was left with a number of stand-alone individuals, born to women with no father named. I imagine that many of these children appear in later marriage and death records as “claimed.”. The baptismal records evidenced a charmingly misogynist habit. In the case of a child born outside of marraige, a father could be added later, if and when the parents were married, thereby striking the word “illegitimate” from the record. In these cases, the records were physically scratched out after the fact, and the father added. I suspect that paternity was, actually, known in most all of the cases at the actual time of birth.
  3. I found a family in which twins occurred seven times across three generations, following the male line. Two sets of twins happened in the same nuclear family and all four children survived! There were other instances of twins, but they rarely survived infancy. Stillbirths were recorded, but the name and gender of the baby were not noted, the name being listed as “N.”
  4. Triplets happened in 1846. All three girls died the day after they were born.
  5. There were periods with extreme increases in the death rate, that I’m certain corresponded to infectious disease outbreaks. Some of these followed household patterns. In 1873, the spike occurred exclusively in toddlers. How my medical hands wish I could decipher the details in those records!
  6. The last event noted in the Catholic register of Ketzelsdorf was a death on July 10, 1945. As noted above, following the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the so-called Wild Expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakis began on January 25, 1946. Roughly 1.6 million ethnic Germans were deported to the American zone (West Germany), and an estimated 800,000 were deported to the Soviet zone (East Germany). To learn more about this time period, visit my friend and yours, Wikipedia, for a primer.

So, was I the lamest quarantiner? Perhaps. Did I miss the boat in terms of submitting my Zoom background for rating? Definitely. Did I keep myself busy and avoid the inevitable slip into housebound-psychosis? You’ll have to ask my family on that one.

Statler and Waldorf, exit stage left

I’m a moderate Muppet fan. Nothing like my little brother, who lists “Muppet Treasure Island” as his most-quoted movie, second only to “Clue,” but I’m right up there. I grew up watching the TV show, with its guests being shepherded around backstage by Scooter, and frequent appearances by John Denver. This is probably as good a time as any to commend the classic John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together to your holiday listening playlist if it isn’t already there.

Best in vinyl, so as to skip while you dance feverishly to the “Run, Run Reindeer” as performed by Doc Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band

The reason I bring up the Muppets (although, does one ever really need a reason?), is to explain my blogging absence. In addition to discovering that I really, really like being forced to stay at home an inordinate amount of time, I’ve spent the past 8+ months slowly slipping into an observer / heckler existence, akin to the classic Muppet characters, Statler and Waldorf. These two watch the entire show from their box seats, flinging witty insults at the performers below, but not really offering much of substance themselves.

As the world outside grew more hostile in so many ways, I sort of shriveled up, took to my box seat, and judged it from afar. Box seats are nice. They offer a good view, and the seats are quite comfy. You can force your words to be heard or not heard, depending on how much you want to applaud or insult the actors. Indeed, you can even gather up a little audience of your own, playing to the camera like Statler and Waldorf.

While I’m sure that my immediate circle is thrilled beyond measure to be the recipients of my ongoing, increasingly caustic and embittered observations, it’s gotta stop. I fear that I will come out of this quarantine a shriveled up Statler or Waldorf: safe, sarcastic, embittered, and unproductive. It’s time to turn a page on that mindset. Maybe you felt the same way, and maybe there’s good reasons. Fair enough. I’m looking forward to resuming some active participation in my own life again. For now, it won’t involve actually leaving the theater, but maybe I’ll climb down among the crowd and rejoin polite in a more virtual manner. Or maybe-gasp-I’ll venture onto the stage and create some content. That’s what this post is–dipping a toe back into the world of blog offerings instead of just nonstop criticism written, thought, or muttered under my breath.

There will be more to come. Bald, waistcoated, and felted is not a good look for me.