Skip to content

First Christmas in the Convent

Carino Hodder at the Lamp

Photo by Tiago Alexandre Lopes / Unsplash

When I was a novice, I heard a homily given by a priest, a former religious, who suggested that there are three things which every sister and brother remembers from their initial formation: their first day in the convent; their first argument in the convent; and their first Christmas in the convent. It may not be the case for everyone—I must admit a couple of sisters gave a skeptical wrinkling of the nose when I tried out this theory on them afterwards—but there is enough truth in the statement, for me at least, that I have been turning it over and over in my mind as I approach what will be not my first, but my eighth conventual Christmas.

Why is it that convent Christmas tends to imprint itself so forcefully on the memory of the new religious? To start with, simply because of the unrelenting newness of the thing. After all, having to adapt to somebody else’s Christmas is always a mildly disconcerting experience; the vast majority of Christian families have built up complex layers of rites and traditions around Christmas (the liturgical; the para-liturgical; the absolutely non-liturgical, usually involving board games) into which it is very difficult to insert oneself without feeling baffled or back-footed at one point or another.

Just think how much more difficult the process becomes when the Christmas to which you are trying to adapt is not a normal family Christmas at all, but the intense and tightly-scheduled juggernaut of a convent Christmas, a seemingly endless stream of Masses and Offices punctuated with the odd little customs which characterize life in a religious community—and threaten the sanity of any sister who asks herself too many questions about their purpose or provenance.

But if the novice sister can see beyond her dismay at having to grate two bags of carrots for Christmas Eve salad, or her alarm at having to shake fresh pine-needles from the convent tree out of her veil at the end of each day, she finds that there’s an invitation to deeper discernment hidden beneath the surface-level strangeness of convent Christmas. Long before Advent begins, the novice sister has learned that religious life is a life that will require her to give totally of herself. But too often her tendency is to think of that self-giving only in grand, lofty, and somewhat abstract terms. This kind of semi-spiritual navel gazing cannot be sustained for long, and isn’t particularly useful even if it could, and so the first Christmas plays a useful—if devastating—role in bringing her back down to earth.

Read the rest