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Christmas traditions

By Michele Levandoski, Archivist, School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives

Prior to the 1970s, the sisters lived a semi-cloistered life, meaning their life centered around the convent, the church and school. What did SSND Christmas celebrations look like during this period? You may be surprised.

Sister Richtrudis Brauhauser (on left) and Sister Leonis Fick, Christmas

The Christmas season began with decorating the Motherhouse, convent and classrooms, putting up Christmas trees and assembling the Christmas Crib. Christmas trees were a uniquely German tradition and in at least one instance, the sisters were responsible for introducing this tradition to their local community. In 1865, sisters celebrated their first Christmas in St. Donatus, Iowa, by decorating a tree. According to the sisters, “But oh, now all, old and young, came to see the Christmas tree of which they had heard, but had never seen.”

The novices at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mankato, Minnesota, took it upon themselves to decorate the Motherhouse chapel for the second Christmas celebration in 1913. The sisters walked into the chapel and were surprised to see it “converted into a real Bethlehem. Even the little cave with its crib was represented. Now we understood why the novices had been working so secretly for the previous days. Artistically shaped rocks formed the exterior of an improvised stable; in a little manger lay an image of the Infant Jesus stretching out His tiny Hands as if to embrace us.”

The sisters working at St. Marianne’s School in Pico Rivera, California, may have taken the prize for decorating during the 1956 Christmas season. A local market gave the sisters 30 trees, so their “chapel was banked with evergreens, a Christmas tree ornamented several areas of the convent, and outdoor crib was erected in the arcade, while two little evergreens, took their stand at our front entrance.”

Sister Gertrude Marie Hagen with Santa at Christmas

Sisters who taught usually started their Christmas celebrations with their students on the last day of school before Christmas break. In 1939, students at St. Joseph’s School in Farmington, Minnesota, celebrated their last day of school before Christmas break by performing a Christmas play. Afterward, Santa distributed a box of goodies – candy, an orange and an apple – to each child. On the last day of school before Christmas 1963, the students at St. Philip Neri in Houston, Texas, were treated to a party with games, cookies and ice cream.

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ and as such, SSND Christmas day celebrations revolved around prayer and church attendance. In 1870, the sisters at Visitation convent in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, began their Christmas celebration at 4:30 in the morning with a Solemn High Mass followed by four lower Masses. At 10 a.m. there was another Solemn High Mass, and in the afternoon, they celebrated Vespers followed by a Benediction. In 1943, the sisters at St. Felix in Wabasha, Minnesota, celebrated in the same way, beginning with Midnight Mass followed by five Masses on Christmas Day and a Benediction.

After church services, sisters would often sit down to a meal. In 1963, the sisters at St. Philip Neri in Houston ate their “traditional (and delicious) turkey dinner with trimmings at home” The sisters might exchange gifts, or they might receive a house gift from the convent superior. For example, the sisters at St. Philip Neri were surprised when they walked into the community room accompanied by music from a new record player. “This stereo was a complete surprise to the community for Sister Superior had smuggled it in without our suspecting it.”

Sister Lourdine Sok at Christmas

Sisters who worked at orphanages or boarding schools would celebrate the holidays with the children, usually by giving them gifts, playing games or hosting Santa. In 1895, the chaplain at the Chinchuba School for the Deaf in Chinchuba, Louisiana, finished off the Christmas celebration by setting off “all kinds of fireworks” for the children who were “satisfied with feasting their eyes on the bright colors and on the climbing rockets and other fireworks.”

The sisters often received gifts from parishioners and students or were gifted a visit by carolers on Christmas Day. In 1950, the sisters living in Guam received a stream of visitors on Christmas Day. First, the Christian mothers from Yona, Guam, marched in procession through the village to the convent singing Christmas hymns in Chamorro. They were followed by a truck loaded with gifts for the sisters. Sodalists from Barrigada came in the afternoon to sing for the sisters and in the afternoon two sisters accompanied children to Agana to sing for the bishop and patients at Guam Memorial Hospital.

The SSND Christmas traditions were rooted in prayer, but it was also a time to celebrate with decorations, good food, gifts and song.


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