Churches continue tradition of Christmas sacks


Churches offer treat bags to attendees, visitors   

by Myra Holmes

After the children’s Christmas program each year at Bethany Church, Fresno, Calif., attendees receive “toots”—bags filled with an apple, an orange, candies and nuts. Both children and adults look forward to this simple tradition that’s been carried on since the church began in 1942.

Like Bethany, many USMB congregations have given out similar Christmas treat bags for as long as anyone can remember. A few congregations still call the gift bags “toots” or “tutes,” from a German word meaning “bag.” Others simply call them Christmas sacks or treat bags.

According to Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for MB Studies, Hillsboro, Kan., the tradition has its roots in the late 1800s, when giving sacks of treats to children was a common practice in many Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren homes. Resources were scarce in these immigrant communities, so a piece of fruit and some candy or nuts was a special gift.

“The desire to give something special to children was limited by what was available,” Goertzen says.

Sometimes, children would receive multiple bags as they attended various celebrations with extended family, and, as children will, they would get increasingly excited with each gift sack. Goertzen tells of one gentleman who told her, “I grew up with Christmas sacks. One Christmas I had four!” 

Eventually, local churches embraced the gift bags as a way to give something to children in Sunday school, and it became a treasured tradition. Linda Esau of Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan., says that in the early days the church even appointed men to guard the bags overnight so they wouldn’t disappear.

Today, it remains a fun way to treat attendees and reach out to visitors. Sylvia Dudo, of New Life Fellowship, Grant, Neb., says, “It is fun and a good way to remind people about why they are giving presents at Christmas.”

In recent years, some churches have chosen not to include peanuts in response to allergy concerns, but otherwise contents of the bags haven’t changed dramatically over the years. Most still usually include fruit, candies and nuts. At Madera Avenue Bible Church, Madera, Calif., the bags include pistachios grown by a farmer in the congregation. Some churches add small items like bookmarks, pencils or ornaments. Traditionally, the treats are put in a plain brown paper lunch sack.

Some churches, like College Community Church MB, Clovis, Calif., give the bags only to children. “We give out treat bags to affirm and celebrate children in our congregation,” says Karen Neufeld of CCCMB.

But it seems all ages enjoy the bags, so many churches now give the bags to all ages. Vince Balakian of Reedley (Calif.) MB Church, where they distribute about 2,500 bags annually, says, “I’m not sure who enjoys them more—the kids or the older generations.”

For those older churchgoers, the bags often conjure childhood memories and serve as a reminder of a time when an apple and a few candies made them feel rich.

 “To continue this practice is a reminder of where we have come from and what God has blessed us with—a reminder that the smallest gift costs something, and gratitude to God is the most appropriate response,” says CMBS’s Goertzen.




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