Not knowing quite how to spend the the hours, yesterday, I thought back to a long-ago Christmas and decided to write about it. This is how it turned out:
Toward the end of 1959, my father got word of a new posting from his employer, UNESCO. At the time we were in Saigon where I had been able to attend a French convent school and had managed to master the French language. For children, total immersion is the best method.
We had arrived from Cambodia in June the previous year and I think my parents would have been happy to stay longer in the “Paris of the Far East”, but UNESCO had other plans and they were off to Ubol, Thailand, where no schools were available.
What to do with the child?
The French convent had a sister school up in the hills, at Dalat and I could go there as a boarder. Problem solved. It was just a matter of getting me there. My father’s new contract, I suppose began on January 1st and my parents wished to spend Christmas in Bangkok.
So, on the night of December 22nd, Mum and I boarded an overnight train that would take us up into the highlands and deliver us next morning to the hill station that would be my home for the next year, more or less.
Mum packed my small suitcase with all the required uniforms and she made a point of showing me the Christmas-wrapped parcel that she included. “Make sure they give it to you!” she said, not quite trusting the system.
Dec 23rd I was handed over to the Dalat branch of Les Oiseaux. I said a cheerful goodbye to my mother, who rushed off back to the train station to make her way south and as I recall, my parents spent Christmas Eve driving across Viet Nam and Cambodia to reach Bangkok sometime on Christmas Day.
There have been a series of unusual Christmases in my lengthy life!
Back in my new boarding school, I was dressed in my new uniform and shown to my dormitory. It would be the first time in my life I had ever had to share a bedroom. I didn’t object to that, but the shared bathroom facilities required a small adjustment of attitude. However, none of it was particularly horrible. Well, there was one thing, but I won’t mention that.
Then I was introduced to the “stayers”, the children who would not be leaving for the holidays. Classes had been suspended for the duration, so we were encouraged to play games. I have no recollection of what they were, just that we did quite a bit of running around.
The group of stayers was quite small, perhaps 20 or so girls of various ages. I had always been shy and didn’t have much to say, so I seem to have smiled a lot, to the point where one of the “mothers”, as the nuns were called, named me “Sourire”, or Smile. (Which turned out to be ironic, but that is another story.)
On December 24th we were put to bed early, without supper, as the Catholic girls would be taking communion at midnight mass. At about 1130 pm we were awakened and formed a procession along the quiet hallways, down to the chilly courtyard and then we filed into the cathedral, Notre Dame du Lang Bian.
Never having attended midnight mass before, I didn’t know what to expect, but somehow it seemed exciting. We settled into our pews and I gazed around the small building. There were two rows of pews with more at the front, on each side of the altar and there was a balcony where perhaps a choir sat.
The stations of the cross were represented on the walls at each side of the main pews and I had learned about those at the school in Saigon. At that school, which I attended as a “day girl”, riding back and forth in a taxicab, we were occasionally required to participate in services, but my experience was not especially happy as it was very hot in the lowlands. One day when we were kneeling, I began to feel dizzy, so I sat and was promptly chastised and forced back to my knees. It was no good trying to explain!
One specific time I recall having to go to a service in the Saigon church was when Pope Pius XII died and again when Pope John XXIII was elected.
The Cathedral in Dalat was different, apart from being chilly, rather than overheated. That Christmas Eve, it was so quiet as we all sat, waiting for the service to begin. I felt something I don’t recall ever having experienced before. I’m hard put to find an accurate word for it. Awe? Respect? Humility? Needing to belong? Perhaps a bit of all those things.
Then the service began and I followed along though I didn’t understand a word, as it was all in Latin. There were hymns and there was incense and then the girls who were Catholic went for communion. I remember feeling I was missing something. That those girls were special.
After the service, we all filed back outside into the night and were escorted to the refectory where we were given big bowls of hot chocolate and hunks of bread and everyone was very cheerful. It kind of felt like Christmas, even though I was with strangers.
After our late feast, we went back to bed. I half expected to find my mother’s Christmas present on my bed, but it was not there. I got back into bed, slightly disappointed as I had been counting on that connection to my mum, but I thought never mind, it would arrive in the morning.
Actually, it didn’t, but I remembered my mother’s words; “make sure they give it to you!” So, when there was no sign of my package, I dared to ask the lady who attended to our dormitory. She said there was no Christmas parcel with my things. Fortunately, I had a good idea what had been inside, so I asked if there was a toy tiger and this produced results.
Timmy the tiger sat on my bed, his eyes glowing in the dark which initially frightened some of the girls, until I explained what the strange lights were. At night I hugged him to my chest and thought of my mum, far away. I still have that tiger.
It was not the first strange Christmas for me, as that would have been in 1956 when my mum tried to make the occasion festive in Phnom Penh, by decorating a green plant with red crepe paper roses. She no doubt made a cake with whatever ingredients she could find and she would have prepared a special meal. I suspect our Italian friend Mariella was there and maybe after I went to bed there were drinks and other friends, but it didn’t seem at all like Christmas. It was so hot and back then, in Cambodia, no-one was interested in Christian holidays. My dad wasn’t much into it either and I know my mother was missing my brother, who was with family in England, having been left behind in boarding school there.
As strange as the boarding school Christmas was, for me, it seemed to make an impression on me. I was attracted to the “feel” of the cathedral. I longed to be able to take part in communion, to the point where, when I went for summer holiday to my parents in Thailand, I summoned up the courage to announce that I wished to be baptised. My mother looked at me with shock, knowing how my father would react. I’m not sure she ever actually told him. I only know that the matter was dropped!
Life at that school became very difficult, afterwards, but then Viet Nam began to unravel and I was sent to another convent, in Cambodia. It had a very small church attached which was run by Franciscan monks. They were extremely humble, good men and I loved their little place of worship. It was just a tiny wooden structure with small coloured glass windows. I remember the scent of incense and the magical evening light when we went for vespers. We didn’t have to attend evensong, but I went because I loved the chant and I loved the peace.
So many things changed my mind about Christianity, really about organized religion in general. Over the years I have met people with so many different beliefs, including many that the West would call “primitive”. I have come away with the sense that people basically all know right from wrong. Some feel the need of a God they can pray to for help or for explanations when bad things occur. The formality of a service, the sound of prayers or religious music can be very soothing. I think you should believe whatever works for you, as long as you don’t try to force your beliefs on someone else.
“Primitive” belief tends to be related to the environment, to things of our planet, to Nature. As far as we know, the ancients had beliefs very much aligned to the Universe and our place in it.
No-one can know what really “is”. For myself, I can only say that those special places, be they a Catholic Cathedral, Church of England Minster, Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat, Stonehenge, the Redwood Forest, the jungle of Borneo, mountain ranges, a stunning sunrise or sunset, a simple beautiful flower or bird, a piece of music… they all affect me deeply, touch something deep in my heart. Is it emotional? Is it spiritual? Whatever it is, those are the things that matter to me.