Christmas News from Fr Garry

Season’s Greetings from Liberia!

The return from southern Spain of the egrets, (locally called the ‘cow’s spirits’), is a sure sign that the dry season is here. Looking ahead, we can anticipate a warm Christmas. Although, as I write, it’s only 33 degrees, and quite comfortable.

Recently, Mary’s Meals invited me to write about Christmas in Liberia. I passed on the challenge to others. What follows reflects the thoughts and memories of some friends, including Rev. Sister Laurene (OSF), Bishop Andrew Karnley of Cape Palmas, Jeanette and Jessie, very committed Catholics in Monrovia, and Zinnah, our former catechist, originally from Bomi County, who is now a teacher in Norway:

Before Advent even begins, Christmas carols are heard on the airwaves. These include Irving Berlin’s White Christmas! But sometimes one hears more appropriately, a home-grown carol A Green, Green Christmas by Malinda Jackson Parker.

Christmas is a time of celebration. Whenever a priest is available, there is Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning, families can be seen walking together to Church, and this celebration may take place in village chapels, in churches, cathedrals, or simply in the open-air.

The wearing of new outfits on Christmas Day is everyone’s aspiration; the reality is that parents go to considerable efforts to buy food, gifts and new clothes for their children, but many go without. When children do appear in their new clothes, they go around greeting adults with, “My Christmas on you!” This is a Christmas Day message that means, “Have you got a gift for me?”

What everyone craves for is a decent meal. Some enjoy it with all the trappings. Others forage in vain to satisfy their hunger. The children’s focus is on “What shall I wear?” But still, for both adults and children, the main concern is, “What shall we eat?” Anyway, on Christmas Day in Bomi and Robertsport and in the surrounding villages, there is often a sharing of food, this can be organised through the mothers in the Church, or at home.

Children, love to gather together to experience the joy of their traditions and culture. Masked dancers are accompanied by other dancers, singers and musicians with traditional instruments to entertain in towns and villages, and everyone joins in the singing and socialising. As a way to connect and strengthen relationships, young people organise events, such as football matches and other games. This demonstrates that Christmas is a time of joy, love and peace; a time of giving and sharing with children and the less fortunate.

We were asked the following: “Does everyone in Liberia know the meaning of Christmas?” Probably not. “Does everyone celebrate Christmas?” Definitely not. “Do only Christians celebrate Christmas?” Perhaps not. “And if residents of some of the villages in the forested hinterland, were to be asked, “Why is Christmas celebrated?”, some may return the question with a blank expression.

During the Christmas season, beach parties are popular in the central part of Monrovia. But away from the city centre, Old Man Baker is the star. He is our local ‘Father Christmas’. Disguised with a face mask, and accompanied by a small band of singers and drummers, Ol’ Man Baker patrols neighbourhoods. He dances energetically and hopes that the onlookers will respond generously with a few dollars. Added to the money already collected during the several weeks leading up to Christmas, there is now enough cash to provide a ‘county cook’ (picnic), which is then enjoyed by the group.

Sadly, for those old enough to remember, Christmas brings mixed feelings because in 1989, on Christmas Eve, just as we were preparing for the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, news came of a rebel incursion into the north-eastern part of the country. The resulting civil conflict lasted thirteen years and resulted in much suffering and loss of life. Therefore, for some people, especially those who lost loved ones, Christmas is a time of prayer and reflection on the value of the gift of peace that the Child Jesus brought to the world. Moreover, it is a time to appreciate the gift of human life and its dignity.

“What is Christmas?” you ask.
It is nothing more than the gift of love,
The meaning of which is still not known
By all for whom this gift was wrapped.

For those so blessed,
To know this gift;
To receive this gift,
Must take the gift to one, to all,
So the world is pulled by cords of love. To understand the birth of Christ
Is a gift for one;
Is a gift for all.

by Mary Laurene Browne, OSF

I’ll be visiting the United Kingdom from January 7 and returning to Monrovia on February 10, and I’ll be in Scotland towards the end of that period. This will be an opportunity to meet some of our friends and benefactors, who continue to help the people of Liberia. For I am very grateful to them for enabling me to continue to take the sick to hospitals in Monrovia, to help those who may need food, and to assist students from villages around here, and those from the Belle Forest to complete their education.

With an assurance of my daily prayers and wishing you a joyous and peaceful Christmas.

Kindest regards, Father Garry.

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