Among my most poignant memories of Christmas are those I spent as a young pupil at a Catholic boarding school in Belgium during the 1930s. I was one of only 10 English girls at the Ursuline Academy located in the province of Brabant. The rest were Belgian and French girls.
When Christmas recess arrived, the Belgians and French went home. We English did not. This was due to the fact that most of our parents were in other parts of the world working in positions in British government.
With the departure of the Belgians as Christmas approached, the old rambling building seemed quiet. The girls had already celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas (their Santa Claus) on Nov. 13. Together with them, we had - according to custom - enjoyed the traditional large gingerbread cookies made in the likeness of the Saint himself which the Richen sisters had served still warm from the oven.
In the village children had put their wooden sabots out overnight to be filled with candies by Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of schoolchildren.
We made the recreation room festive with holly and mistletoe gathered in the nearby woods and trimmed a Christmas tree. We opened our gifts from home and sang English Christmas carols. We stayed up late, sitting round the fire roasting chestnuts and talking about home.
On Christmas Eve, during midnight Mass, the old chapel was filled with flowers and candlelight and echoed with the solemn cadence of gregorian music. The baby Jesus lay in an elaborate creche of straw surrounded by candles. On one occasion, the candles set the straw aflame and a brief panic ensued which was averted when someone threw holy water on the flames.
Afterwards, with the last soaring notes of the organ ringing in our cars, we made our way back through the drafty corridors to the dining hall where hot mulberry wine and ginger cookies awaited us served by Sister Benodette. Rotund and motherly, she was in charge of the Richen and was want to call us her "pauvres petites." On our birthdays she would make us one of her rich cakes, liberally laced with liqueur, as was the Belgian custom.
Years later, I celebrated Christmas in different parts of the world but those I spent in Belgium were unique and probably the most reverent.
Agnes "Pat" Pfleuger