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True meaning of Christmas lives on in a barn near Svea

Briana Sanchez / Tribune Deb Tonsfeldt adjusts baby Jesus in the manger Dec. 18 at the Tonsfeldt barn in Svea. The family hosts a reenactment of the nativity scene each year titled, Christmas in the Barn.1 / 3
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Matthew Johnson, playing a shepherd, waits for the rest of the wise men and shepherds to line up for a photo Dec. 18 at Deb and Dale Tonsfeldt's barn in Svea.2 / 3
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Blake Bowen, one of the three wise men, walks through the barn after a group photo Dec. 18 at Deb and Dale Tonsfeldt's barn in Svea. 3 / 3

SVEA — Deb Tonsfeldt can still remember the feeling that came over her the first time the Svea Lutheran Church held its Christmas Day service inside the barn her father-in-law built. Mary and Joseph were gazing down at the baby in the manger, while a group of shepherds, three wise men and a barn full of animals looked on.

"It was such an overwhelming feeling. This is how Jesus was born. I never had that, even as a kid," Tonsfeldt said.

Deb and Dale Tonsfeldt have hosted the annual Christmas in the Barn service at their barn near Svea for 20 years, since the idea was first presented to them by church members.

"It was so cool, so we kept doing it. I wanted to share it with other people," Tonsfeldt said.

The barn itself was built by Allen Tonsfeldt in 1957. He was very moved that the church wanted to use his barn for this annual celebration.

"He was so honored and happy we kept doing this," Tonsfeldt said. Allen died in 2008.

Church pastor Erik Rundquist will be celebrating his third Christmas Day at the Tonsfeldt barn and feels this service is a special way to mark the day.

"It's good for Christians to remember our history. It began in a barn," Rundquist said.

In addition to the live nativity, the service includes communion and music, just like if the service was taking place in the church. The congregation sits on hay bales in the barn and afterward there is a social time with treats and warm drinks.

"It is fantastic," Rundquist said.

The nativity parts are played by children of church members. The Tonsfeldt children and grandchildren have all taken part in the festivities.

"We have 11 grandchildren and they all have been baby Jesus," Tonsfeldt said.

This year Oliver Cuezas, son of Michelle and Saul Cuezas, will be lying in the manger, which was built by Tom Flannigan. The other children taking part in the nativity scene are Madison Bowen as Mary; Nicholas Flannigan as Joseph; Blake Bowen, Benjamin Johnson and Kayden Andrist as the three wise men; Jacob Flannigan, Matthew Johnson, Steven Carlson, Jase Bowen and Isaiah Andrist as shepherds; and Ellie Bowen and Courtney Carlson as angels.

While the focus of the service is rightly on the birth of Christ, sometimes the four-legged guests can steal the show. Tonsfeldt recalls several times when the animals made themselves known. Goats used to eat the song sheets right out of people's hands and one year a horse took off with the songbook of one of the musicians. During another Christmas the cats that called the barn home were quite enamored with the freshly baked communion loaves.

"We've had some experiences. You never know when you have animals," Tonsfeldt said.

The Tonsfeldt farm has always had animals. Dale Tonsfeldt is a farmer, having taken over the farm from his father, and the farm has always had sheep.

"The sheep he'll never want to get rid of," Deb Tonsfeldt said.

When the couple's children were at home the farm was also home to goats, horses and others.

"We had every animal under the sun," Tonsfeldt said. For this year's service the Tonsfeldts will be bringing in a donkey and perhaps more.

While the service was first put together for members of the Svea Lutheran Church, it has been open to the public for quite some time.

"Anybody can come," Tonsfeldt said, adding families from around the area have come for the Christmas in the Barn.

Tonsfeldt has been asked by people to have the service moved to another day, because Christmas can be such a busy day for families. However the Christmas in the Barn continues to be held on Christmas, because Christian tradition teaches that is when Mary gave birth.

Tonsfeldt can only remember the service being canceled once in the past 20 years and she believes it was because the pastor was ill.

"We go cold, snow. You can't stop a baby from being born," Tonsfeldt said.

And that is why the Tonsfeldts and the Svea Lutheran Church continue to hold this unique and memorable Christmas service.

"It's not about gifts. Christmas isn't about the hustle and bustle. It is about this beautiful baby," Tonsfeldt said.

Christmas in the Barn will be held at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 25, at the barn of Deb and Dale Tonsfeldt at 13200 15th Street Southeast, just outside Svea.