From Jennifer Worth’s memoir, Call the Midwife (the basis for the BBC/PBS TV series of the same name, which I was alerted to by this review in America), recounting her experiences as a young nurse-midwife in the 1950s, working with an order of nuns in London’s East End:
For the first time in my life I began to understand that Christmas is a religious festival, and not just an occasion for overeating and drinking. It had all begun in late November with something I was told was Advent. This meant nothing to me, but for the nuns it meant a time of preparation. Most people prepare for Christmas as Betty had done, buying food, drinks, presents and treats. The nuns prepared rather differently, with prayer and meditation.
The religious life is a hidden life, so I would not see or hear what was going on, but as the four weeks of Advent progressed, I began to feel intuitively that something was in the air. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but as children pick up a feeling of excitement from their parents, so I “caught” from the Sisters a real feeling of calm, peace and joyful expectancy, which I found to be strangely disturbing and unwelcome.
It came to a head on Christmas Eve when I returned late from my evening visits. Sister Julienne was around, and said to me, “Come with me to the Chapel, Jennifer, we put up the crib today.”
Not wishing to be rude by saying I would rather not, I followed her. The chapel was unlit, except for two candles placed by the crib. Sister Julienne kneeled at the altar rail to pray. Then she said to me, “Our blessed Saviour was born on this day.”
I remember looking at the small plaster figures and the straw and things, and thinking, how on earth can an intelligent and well-informed woman take all this seriously? Is she trying to be funny?
I think I murmured something polite about it being very peaceful, and we parted. However, I was not at peace within myself. Something was nagging at me that I was trying to resist. Was it then or was it later that the thought came to me: if God really does exist, and is not just a myth, it must have consequence for the whole of life. It was not a comfortable thought.