On a Mission to Celebrate Christmas

Many of us spend Christmas about the same way every year. We know pretty well what will happen as long as nothing unexpected disrupts our plans. For my great grandmother Dagny, disruption was more rule than exception as she recounted some of her different kinds of Christmases in a mission calendar in the year 1916.

Her first Christmas as a missionary student at the China Inland Mission home in London was spent together with a few other missionary candidates. During the day, they had organized a small Christmas party for missionary children, whose parents had been in London shortly before going to their final destination as missionaries on the Pacific Islands. A Christmas tree had even been acquired for the party, which had been greatly appreciated by the little ones. Now, all the lights were out and even the gas had been turned off. Only the fireplace gave some light and warmth to the small room where the girls had gathered. Their discussions were concentrated on their home countries and families.

At midnight someone rang the doorbell. It was a postman who wanted to rid himself of work before Christmas Day. Dagny felt very blessed as she received a much longed for letter from her mother and father. “O´ beloved parents, how it did not feel to be separated from you and my dear siblings!”

A young Dagny, middle right. Together with likeminded friends, just before starting out as a missionary in China.

The following Christmas Eve, Dagny was in China and celebrated together with only one of the girls who had been with her in London. The other two women at the station were British and therefore celebrated on Christmas Day. This time, no fire burned in the fireplace even though it was cold and snowy outside. The room was almost empty – they had only a couple of folding chairs to sit in. Nothing, except for the snow outside, reminded of Christmas in the Nordics. The girls had not brought anything superfluous with them to China, not even a napkin to decorate the small table. After a very simple meal at 6.30 pm, the fire in the kitchen had been put out. To have something nice and warm, the girls boiled water on a camping stove and made some tea. They had bought some cookies from a street vendor and decided to light a couple of candles. They thought about their childhood homes and Dagny remembered herself standing outside the living room trying to catch a glimpse of all the loveliness in there, where her mother and father decorated the Christmas tree. When her mother finally opened the door and asked everyone to come in, Dagny thought the Christmas tree shone brighter than ever before. To recreate something from her childhood Christmases, Dagny and her friend opened the Bible and read the same passage that Dagny’s father used to read to her as a child, and they sang the same carol. After having celebrated this way, Dagny felt reassured she had done the right thing becoming a missionary in China.

The third Christmas, Dagny celebrated in China, she felt more at home. She had her own little room with a cozier feel to it. She had some light bamboo furniture and even curtains, though the windows were very small. On the table, a small cloth and in the ceiling a couple of brightly colored lamps helped set the mood. This year, Dagny received a Christmas package from her loved ones as well as one from their friends.

On the fourth Christmas in China, Dagny joyously writes that she had even lit a Christmas tree – a cypress, but still – a tree! This time, she was no longer at one of the China Inland Mission stations in the middle of China, but amongst her friends at the Swedish Mission in China – in Yuncheng. “The hostess Mrs. Hahne had organized everything very Swedish, homey, and Christmassy. Several of our missionaries had gathered and reading the Christmas gospel was a blissful moment.”

The fifth Christmas was very different. Robert had promised to spend Christmas with some British friends, who had recently lost their only child. The journey there was perilous – Dagny and Robert got stuck in the snow with their carriage amongst the wolves and robbers roaming the the country side. Luckily, they got saved by some strong men who helped them sort the carriage out and showed them to a nearby, very simple inn. On Christmas morning, they woke up in a cave where there was nothing but a kang (bed-stove). No other furniture, no windows, no door except for a carpet made from straw, hung on a broom in the cave opening. Due to the snow, they had to keep travelling without their carriage. Dagny sat on her mule, singing all the Christmas carols she could think of and by sundown, they finally reached their destination.

Read about their adventures during this journey here: Taking risks during Christmas in China – Thérèse Amnéus (wordpress.com)

The interior of an inn, 1887. From the book:
The Long White Mountain, or a Journey in Manchuria, by
H.E.M. James (Public Domain)

The above picture could well be a good enough description of where Dagny and Robert could have stayed the night – though this illustration shows some kind of window above the “kang.” Dagny and Robert stayed in an actual cave – no daylight would have entered, except from through the straw carpet acting as door…

Finally home again
The years passed and so did the Christmas celebrations. In the year 1900, Dagny and Robert could finally celebrate with Dagny’s family in Norway. Together with her father, mother, and siblings, they all gathered in her childhood home. This time with a couple of new members of the family present – not least Morris, Dagny’s and Roberts first born son.
Getting there had not been easy – read about that here: It’s coming on Christmas – Thérèse Amnéus (wordpress.com)

Dagny recalls this Christmas with much love:
“My beloved mother had joyfully organized everything for this celebration to give her children and grandchildren as homey a welcome as possible. When the church bells rang for Christmas, the family gathered in the dining room around mothers’ neat coffee table. After coffee, the three of us from China withdrew for a moment. We returned, surprising our family by wearing our Chinese clothes. Especially little Morris´ clothes interested them all. He wore a beautiful dress with embroidered shoes, west and hat – a gift from the Chinese in our community.
Then, just like in olden times, the doors opened to the room with the Christmas tree. My eldest sister sat down by the piano and once again, the Christmas carols sounded from everyone’s lips. My father picked up the big family bible and read the Christmas gospel. His voice trembled and his eyes glistened with tears when he praised God, who had brought us all together this Christmas. This was the last time we were all gathered this way in life.”

What about us?
Today, I think not only of my great grandparents and their different Christmases, but also of all those around the world, who cannot spend Christmas in peace. My great grandparents seem to have found others to spend Christmas with – be it family, friends, or acquaintances. They were not alone. Not everyone is that lucky. I am thinking of those who are in war or fleeing war. Those who are homeless or who have a home but celebrate alone. Those who battle serious health issues and those who are no longer with us. Not everyone celebrates Christmas – not least because of other beliefs – but Christmas is still a time when the societal pressure to be happy and to be together is very strong. That makes it even worse for those who are not so fortunate.

My thoughts go to you, who are riding out your battles – whatever they may be – and let’s wish for a calmer, more peaceful 2023.

Merry Christmas, in Chinese 🙂 The most Christmas-like items I have from China are these warrior masks in white and red.

10 thoughts on “On a Mission to Celebrate Christmas

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  1. This post is heartwarming and also tinged with sadness because of the long separations which your family members endured. I loved Christmas as a child. My family celebrated mainly on Christmas Eve by opening presents and going to church at 11 pm (Episcopal), where the lights would be turned down and everyone would hold a small candle. At midnight the church bell would ring. It was quite beautiful, really.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. How moving it must have been with all those candles and the church bells! I once went to a Christmas Day morning church service, which was also wonderful – we got up at 4 a.m to be there at 5 a.m. It was pitch black outside, but the entrance path leading up to the church door was lined with outdoor torches and all the wooden bench rows were indicated by burning candles. It was in the country side and some even arrived to the church by horse and sleigh as the snow lay thick on the ground. I never had such an experience since. Lovely, that your family had such a tradition on Christmas Eve, and thank you for sharing it. 🌟❄️

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It varies from year to year, which I suppose is true most places. Last year I had to shovel several times, but didn’t have to use the snowblower. Some years I have to blow the driveway several times, because there’s too much to shovel. I live in a valley, which is a little warmer than the mountain areas to the west, which get more snow. Vermont has a number of popular ski resorts.

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        1. Sounds a bit like Sweden ☃️. We had lots of snow in Stockholm a few weeks ago, but now it’s all bare again. I do like it when there’s snow for Christmas. To be sure one would have to go up north, though.

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  2. I particularly appreciated your comments in “What about us?” Thanksgiving and Christmas are tough for me with my family of origin passed away. I am so thankful to have my husband.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Loss is hard during these kinds of holidays. The void is so much greater when it seems everybody else is getting together. I often think that our loved ones are on loan, and so are we. Making the most of out time together is the best we can do. It’s lovely that you have each other as a couple, Liz, though you are missing so many of your family members. ❤️

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