Whenever I am asked to write or speak about Christmas, I am tempted to resort to my book, “Yes, I’d Do it Again,: and quote from the chapter on my first Christmas in Africa. If you have read it before, skip to the next article.
“Shortly after eleven o’clock (p.m.) the church bell rang and the doors were opened. The people crowded into the Church. There were not only Catholics, but also Protestants and Pagans. There were no televisions or radios to distract them, so Midnight Mass was really the big event of the year. The Church, which is quite a large building, was packed and in no time the choir- composed mostly of children- began to sing the Christmas carols. I was sitting in the sanctuary as I was not celebrating the Mass- that was the prerogative of the pastor. As the familiar tunes of the carols followed one another, my heart began to get very full. It is an extraordinary and very emotional experience to find oneself thousands of miles from home and hear the same carols sung in another tongue. It somehow makes the Divinity of Christ more real than anything else I know. There is no human or natural explanation for Christmas.
The Birthday of a Baby, born in a stable in a small village nearly two thousand years ago is celebrated all over the world, even in the catacombs of China and Russia. I sat listening to the African children, with their clear voices, singing the same tunes which have rung down the centuries and were being repeated that very same night in thousands of churches all over the world.
I was keeping my emotions fairly well under control until the harmonium struck up “Silent Night.” To hear that beautiful song, which I had sung in Ireland as a child, a boy, and a man, resounding throughout the church in an African tongue! Africans have no inhibitions about singing. They just let go, especially when they know a song well. They lifted the roof with “Zaa a Nena, Sikukuu,” the Ki-Swahili for “Silent Night.” I turned the chair completely towards the altar to hide my tears.
The ceremonies began at midnight and the children’s choir sang the midnight Mass in Latin without any books. Africans have great memories. If they have heard the words of a song once or twice, it is fixed in their minds. The Crib or Nativity scene was over at the side and covered with a sheet. At the end of Mass, the ushers took off the sheet and the people came up to look at the figures. In his homily, the pastor had explained the meaning of CHirstmas. Many, who were not Christians, would be hearing it for the first time. They were always fascinated by “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The fact that God came down on earth and had a human Mother was no problem for them. I turned my chair and sat at the side of the Crib, watching the faces og the people in the candlelight.
I was particularity interested in the pagan African women, with their babies on their backs or at their breasts. They stared at the Mother and the Child, with wonder in their eyes, knowing it was something of another world but never doubting the truth of the tale.
Africans, particularly out in the bush, have retained natural values, which we in the sophisticated West have lost. One of these is the glory of Motherhood. In a strange way, the whole story of Christmas came alive for me as never before.
“Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible Says, Mary’s Boy child, Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day. Trumpets sound and angels sing it, listen what they say, that man will live forever more because of Christmas Day!”