The first Christmas of Madonna House Combermere, in 1947, Lady Poverty dwelt with us in her all-shining reality. Madonna House then was just a six-room house with no outbuildings, except for an outdoor toilet. It stood rather lonely, in what then was a huge, five-acre expanse of white, sparkling snow.
Nature provided us with many splendid evergreens to decorate the house—which we did—with fragrant greens and a freshly cut Christmas tree. But absent were the usual shining baubles, the kind that bring delight to the hearts of children—both the real ones and the ones whose heads might be gray with age.
There were just Eddie, myself, and Grace Flewwelling, whom we called Flewy. She was the only one who had come with us from Friendship House Harlem.
Flewy’s hands worked wonders with the little humble things that we had for decorating our tree, which stood in the corner of the little room with the fireplace, overlooking the river.
A few walnuts had been donated to us, about a pound or so. Flewy, who was an artist, painted them with some old gold and silver paint, which she’d brought with her from Harlem. We put hairpins into them and hung them on the tree with black threads.
Flewy then cut a roll of donated tinfoil into various shapes, mostly the figures and symbols of the nativity: such as the Infant and his mother, St. Joseph, oxen, donkeys and stars. Those we hung on the tree, too.
A few other little donated odds and ends we fashioned into ornaments, and topped it off with candles, since we had no electric lights. I was reminded of our Christmas trees in Russia, which were always lit with candles.
Flewy’s ingenuity—and the lovely fresh greens, little bits of ribbon and whipped up "snow" made from soap—completed our decor. I think we did very well, although decorating in the usual fancy, delightful Christmas style we were accustomed to was impossible.
Flewy and I also made wreaths. They were very simple, and we decorated them with pinecones, painted laboriously with some donated red, green, and white paint. Those were the only decorations for that first Christmas.
But words cannot express how great was the love that went into it. How tremendous that first Christmas was, when, after our humble but loving preparations, we went off to Midnight Mass, walking across the road to the church, on a starry night that was rather cold.
The crunching snow was a song in our ears; sweetly it sang its carols to us. The ice on the river reflected the stars and the snow reflected thousands of sparkling stars.
As we approached the church, which was softly lit with kerosene lamps and candles, it glowed like a jewel in the night, and the sound of the choir singing carols greeted us.
It was a Mass I’ll never forget, because it was a Mass of joy and great thanksgiving for the gift of our vocation, for the coming of poverty, for the sharing in the life of those we had come to serve, and for the beauty round about us and the charity of God and his tenderness.
It was wonderful to return home and to have our little collation—the Christmas foods that had been laid out on a table near the tree. As we ate, the logs in the fireplace were crackling and singing their carols too.
We had no turkey. We had no goose. We had no ducks. Not even a roast with Yorkshire pudding. We had hamburgers and French fried potatoes, warmed in the oven, and a little plum pudding that I had made—just enough for three.
There was no wine, so we drank tea. But I think all three of us were drunk with joy and gratitude and love.
The gifts we exchanged were nothing in themselves—silly, little, funny things—but lovingly wrapped in beautiful parcels, as beautiful as our love for one another could make them.
We didn’t have many items of clothing, so we took from the second-hand pile a sweater not too much worn, a pair of socks for Eddie without too many holes, a warm shirt for him, and some warm underwear for us. All had been washed, cleaned, and wrapped up very well.
The wrapping was our little carol of love to one another, since the gift itself had been given by Our Lady through the charity of others.
We had great joy and much laughter opening our gifts. Flewy received a brooch, not very new, in the shape of a teapot, because she was always going around saying: "That last meal we had was not very filling. How about filling our tummies with a nice, hot, strong cup of tea?" She sure was a great tea drinker.
And the little brooch she gave me was in the shape of a wooden spoon. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks, because I was forever stirring up some "gook" or other, a creative mixture of unknown leftovers.
We gave Eddie a little one-inch hatchet because, in those days, he was dealing with the splitting and carrying of wood.
I think, amidst our laughter, we were very mature that moment, for we were very childlike and simple. And the spirit of Madonna House with its love for little things was palpable and could have been touched at that moment on that first Christmas—like a living thing—like a living flame among us.
This is how traditions and family customs are established—out of something intangible, out of laughter, out of a joyous minute or hour, out of the wonderment of a human soul at the tremendous gift of childlikeness.
That state of soul, that state of mind, that state of emotion is a gift of God. This is His way of making thin the veil of faith. This is His tender manner of bringing us to Bethlehem, to the manger, to the stupendous, awesome mystery of Jesus Christ—God-made-man!
Even if a family doesn’t have much, the ingenuity of love, the joy of giving oneself, each to the other, far outshines any silly baubles bought with money alone.
For the love of Christ is what Christmas is all about, and loving one another will please the Infant inestimably more than any other gift you could possibly dream of.
We didn’t have much for ourselves, that Christmas in Combermere. But we had been able to beg a few gifts for our neighbors, though we didn’t know many of them the first year here. The closest families to us received our humble, begged gifts of love.
Yes, it was a good Christmas, that first Christmas at Madonna House.
—Excerpted and adapted from Donkey Bells, pp.123-127, available from Madonna House Publications.
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