Celebrating Christmas in different parts of the world might at first feel strange if you are in new surroundings. I always thought it would be disconcerting to spend Christmas in a warm weather environment since I’ve spent my whole life in New York. What did the Maryknoll Sisters think about spending Christmas in their far off mission locales? Well, thanks to the Maryknoll Sisters Diaries we can take a peek into their little corners of the world.
First we have the Christmas Eve 1943 diary entry from the Sisters missioned at the Cobija Convent in Bolivia:
Christmas Eve! – but not a hint of Christmas in the air – although we had it in our hearts…We cleaned all day, and after Night Devotions, came home to put the finishing touches on our cribs. Our greatest problem was making a star out of the top of the tin can to adorn the first crib. We had so much trouble cutting one we never got around to make the other two stars. Our figures were unique, traced from pictures on a religious calendar, colored and mounted on cardboard. Along with the Holy Family we had rabbits, mules, horses, cows, lambs, etc.
At Midnight Mass the church was bulging with the record attendance for the year. The gathering formed a pretty picture – the First Communion group in spotless white, with candles in their hands, the Children of Mary also in white with white veils and blue ribbons round their necks, the women in light colored or white clothes, and the men in white suits or uniforms of the Bolivian Army, as there are many soldiers quartered here. True, the decorations from an artistic viewpoint might have been called garish and tawdry – bright colored paper flowers adorning all the altars; the crib, with the Nino surrounded by all kinds of animals, with a tiny toy truck running up the side of a hill to get to Him, and a toy dog poking its head out of its dog-house, and a placid pool in the foreground might not be our conception of the traditional Nativity scene…but there was an atmosphere of joy and expectancy that was unmistakably of Christmas, as the congregation waited for the beginning of Mass and the coming of the Babe at the moment of Consecration.
Next we have an entry from the Sisters missioned in Kowak, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1955:
Christmas Eve – Preparations have been going on for days. Sister Marie William [Maley] was busy baking cookies of all shapes and sizes. Some were iced, others wrapped and put in colorful Christmas boxes and still others, those not quite up to par, found their way to our lunch table in the morning. Sister James Elizabeth’s [Reese] candy department managed to turn our caramels and fudge to perfection. There were other preparations too, decorations for the church, chapel and house and in each of these we new comers were able to help. But for all this our first Christmas in Africa seemed rather remote. The days flew by as we checked the calendar and we were almost afraid that the 25th would come and go before we realized it. This was our feeling right up to Christmas Eve, then we, like Scrooge, were awakened by the Spirit of Christmas Present.
At breakfast Sister Margaret Rose [Winkelmann] read one of Mother’s conferences given this day a few years ago. Its theme of joyful expectation set the pace for the day and we knew with certainty what season was upon us. Last minute touches placed here filled the day and brought us right up the supper bell. The refectory was colorfully decorated with stars, stars, and more stars. Stars of the windows, stars on the table, star cookies for dessert and the recorded Christmas carols brought stars to our eyes which suggested a most welcome early to bed.
Christmas Day – In the afternoon we had a Christmas visit from some of the Fathers. After supper we sang carols and enjoyed ourselves. Although we had been slow in finding the Christmas Spirit, when we found it we found it in full – full of joy and happiness for the day and all the year through. We only pray that Africa may be the scene of many more first Christmases for new Maryknollers. We newcomers recommend it highly while we offer thanks for being able to be a part of Christmas in Africa, 1955.
Lastly, what was the very first Maryknoll Sisters’ Christmas like back in 1912?
December 24 – Tuesday. Sara’s [Sr. Mary Theresa Sullivan] morning call was followed by the joyful news that the ground was covered with snow. The storm continued until late in the afternoon, and then, when the earth had been clothed in its pure white Christmas mantle, the sun came out, to throw over all a mass of golden splendor as it dropped out of sight behind the Seminary chapel. Meanwhile we had been busy preparing our chapel for its first Mass. It was banked with green boughs, which half hid the unfinished walls and drooped over the tabernacle as if they had grown and bent for that very purpose. A little crib was made by fastening two boards together and when it had been filled with straw, it received a tiny figure of the Infant King, a little broken and marred, but smiling at us from its rude cradle. When all was done, we could only stand and admire the way in which all things had worked together to prepare this manger-chapel. We could not have wished for anything better than the smallness and closeness of it, the glimpses of bareness in the half-whitewashed walls and the fragrant green branches with red berries scattered among them. The very air breathed the spirit of that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, when only Nature strove to make beautiful the cave wherein the Son of God was born.
December 25 – Wednesday. Then came the first Christmas at Maryknoll. It began with a Midnight Mass, sung by Father Price, with Father playing the organ and the boys chanting…As we walked over to the Seminary our path was lighted by the clear brightness of a full moon and stars that sparkled with a joyful radiance. The spirit of Christmas was in the air…