Memories of Christmases gone by ..

Written on 31 October 2018

The German nuns at the boarding house made the most delicious creamy rice pudding.

When Christmas rolled around, we sang ‘O Tannenbaum’ (O Christmas tree) and paraded into the boarding house in a slow sequence with huge smiles and candles alit. The large boarding house would have been scrubbed clean, a lofty Christmas tree with gifts for all and the large dining table laden with yummy Christmas food, snacks and buckets of iced homemade fruity cordial would greet us we entered the large wooden doors.

The boarding house catered for 30 girls each year who opted to board at the mission international school. There were about 250 school kids in the whole school.

I remember singing the opening line ‘O Tannenbaum, o tannenbaum’ loudly with confidence and quickly turned down the volume a couple of notches as I struggled to sing the next lines in German:

‘Wie true sind deine Blatter!

Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!

I watched the German nuns ride off on their bikes in the mornings to the mission hospital where they worked. My little mind often wondered why they did not smile often when they were in fact saving lives at the hospital. The tinkling of bicycle bells in the afternoon indicated their return, and they would ride past us as we were weeding flower and vegetable garden patches after school.

At seven on the dot each evening without fail, our school principal, an American nun from Pennsylvania, would come by the boarding house to check on our homework. We read aloud to Sister Bernadette and if we mis-pronounced a word, we had to look up the word and put the word in a sentence until we understood the definition and how to correctly pronounce the word.

Smudges of erasing pencil writing and messy hand writing were not tolerated. Everything had to be neat and perfect! She taught us how to darn our socks and to use baking soda to keep white clothes white. We made our own energy drinks for sports carnivals too.

Bits and bobs of German and American influence were manifested in little ways in the boarding home.

An Australian nun from Melbourne, Sr Mary Gertrude, supervised the boarding house and taught us how to play the piano and the guitar. In the evenings, she’d sit on the patio while we were doing our homework and she would play the accordion. The beautiful music would float beyond the hills of the Catholic mission in Vunapope, Kokopo – East New Britain Province.

The nuns taught us values of life and skills that took us beyond after we left the boarding house.

Looking back, I still remember the magical feeling of Christmas.

Our favourite time of the year was Christmas – more so because for boarders, we had more than one celebration – one with our classes, one with the school and one at the boarding house. And that meant many gifts!

At school, we ended the academic year with a week of Christmas festivities.

We would have the boarding house Christmas party a week before the school party.

Someone (often the chubbiest girl) would dress up as Santa and we’d all get dressed up and help ‘Santa’ carry the sack of gifts around the mission singing Christmas carols after dinner in the evening.

The mission is set on rolling green hills. Neat rows of daisies and roses of all colours, marigold and ferns adorned the white picket fence near the boarding house. A bridge connected one part of the mission to the church, the shoemaker and the priest’s monastery.

We would deliver gifts to the sick children at the hospital, nurses, priests and nuns at the convents.

On one of these Christmas rounds, ‘Santa’ climbed through the open window at the FMI Sisters’ convent to deliver gifts. We forgot they had a dog. The dog chased ‘Santa’ and the Christmas carol singing turned into shrieks and squeals. The nuns came running out and had all of us including the nuns in stitches. It was hilarious.

Giving at Christmas was a traditional custom at the boarding house that we grew up in.

On the last week of school, the whole school would watch a Christmas tape on the VCR after lunch in the library.

“Bah! Humbug!“ some kids would tease each other after we watched Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

All the school kids would wear their play clothes to school to do a major cleanup, scrubbing floors and wiping down windows, chairs, desks and shelves. The whole school cooled off with ice cream or ice blocks after the cleanup.

The night after, the school would host a Christmas pageant for our parents and families in the evening. Each year’s presentation of the Nativity Scene would be in a different style and theme. I recall one Christmas, we did a shadow play, enacting the Nativity scene behind a white curtain. We used flood lights to cast a shadow behind the curtains. It was so creative and such a beautiful play. On the night, class prizes were also given out to students.

On the last day of school, the smell of warm Christmas food, fruits and dessert would fill the room partitioned by a sliding door to the library. All classes would cross over to the library after lunch in single file lines and we’d all open our Christmas gifts. The teachers took their time to carefully choose our gifts, it was a joy unwrapping our gifts.

When the bell rang to go home, we would all run out of the classrooms and leave the school grounds excitedly. I enjoyed the Christmas holidays. The days seemed long and were filled with fun, family and food.

I look back with a sense of nostalgia for good times long gone.

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