I think I celebrated about twenty-six Christmases in Kenya, East Africa. But the only one that stands out in my memory is the first.
It was in 1942 and in those days there were no distractions such as television and radio out in the “bush,” so Midnight Mass was one of the big events of the year. Everybody came to it – Catholics, Protestants, pagans. Night falls early in Africa, and it was pitch dark by 9 p.m.
A Heart-stirring sight
The Pastor (long since dead) suggested to me that I should go out and watch the people coming down the hills. I said, “but I won’t be able to see them.” He replied, “go and see.”
I went out and a strangely heart-moving sight met my eyes. The hills were alive with small dots of light – swaying and moving. Each family brought their own little oil lamp as there were no lights in the church.
Some people walked more than thirty miles and would return home after Mass. As they arrived in the compound, there were introductions and greetings interspersed with laughter.
Alive with a “joy”
Some had not met since the previous Christmas, others for perhaps a few years and then there were the many who came for the first time. The whole night was alive with a “Joy” which this world alone cannot give.
Bethlehem all over again
It was a long wait until 11 p.m. when the church would open. But it is a warm time of the year and so they sat in groups on the grass and chatted. Then the young people began to dance their own native dances, while the old talked about “better times” and “days long gone.”
A donkey carrying a young, pregnant woman and led by a tired man would have blended perfectly into the scene. And perhaps there would have been “room.”
At 11 p.m. the bell sounded, the doors opened and the people crowded into the church. It was quite a large building but it was filled to overflowing. There were no fire regulations in those days and the lighted lamps constituted a fire hazard. But nobody even thought of such a thing as they silently took their places along the low seats. Apart from the crying of the multitudes of babies, there was no other sound in the church.
Carols and Tears
Before Mass began, the children’s choir sang carols. I sat in the sanctuary and listened – enthralled. When they sang Silent Night in the Kikuyu language, my heart overflowed through my eyes and memories flooded back.
Christmas, celebrated in a different culture and expressed in what was then for me a strange tongue, stirs the soul at such a deep level that the experience cannot be rendered captive in the bonds of mere human words.
At the end of Mass the people came to see the Crib. I sat at the side and watched their faces in the dim light of the lanterns. What impressed me most was the expression on the faces of the pagan women, with their own babies at their breasts, as they looked with wonder at the Child and His Mother.
Motherhood in “pagan” Africa is a woman’s greatest glory and the story of a maiden who became pregnant with the Son of God, though they could but vaguely grasp its significance, elevated the entire concept of pregnancy to a level far beyond the bounds of human understanding.
Different meanings of Christmas
After Mass, we stood outside the church greeting the people as they started back on what was, for some, several hours walk through the bush. But they were happy and, as the voices faded, that mystical silence of the African night enveloped us again.
Father Lynch turned to me and said, “For the African, Christmas is over.” For the white man, it had scarcely begun.