What makes your Christmas special?

What makes your Christmas special?
Here are some Christmas stories.  Have you got your own to add?

In Letters from Manchuria Marion Young writes of a Christmas birth:

Faku, 25th December 1936

 Christmas morning – grey, dank at 10 to 5 – I shot up in bed, wakened, I was sure by running feet outside my window … Nothing more happened and I was just dozing off when I heard Fish [the cook] dash in through the back door and down to Mamie’s room. I was out before he had her door opened and heard him say, “Gow’s wife is in the well.” [Gow was the compound caretaker.] I nabbed my flash light and rope, which I had brought for skipping, and Fish disappeared. I had bought about 30ft of rope in a hank – couldn’t get less, and thought it would come in useful for roping my boxes later – thank goodness! There wasn’t as much anywhere about the 2 compounds.

Marion and Mamie

Mamie and I pulled on knickers and Chinese gowns over our nightdresses and fled across to the other compound. The rest is a muddled picture of nightmare and comic effects. She had fallen into a well – must be over 100ft deep – 40 before you reach water, and they had thrown down the bucket to her. We heard her groaning and moaning – the mother-in-law, husband and Fish were shouting encouragements to her – I suddenly realised someone would have to go down to her – the husband was too big for the well mouth – sick feeling in my middle as I decided it must be me – but it wasn’t!

‘Fish’ the cook

Thanks be – Fish was busy getting off his gown, tying a board to the rope end, sat on it, twisted it round his shoulders, between his legs, around his waist and then we started to let him down – flash failed, candle brought, went out – Mamie and I trying to hold the girl up on well rope – Fish shouted he had her and then we started to haul – what a haul! Ivy was there by that time and she, Mamie and I hauled the well rope; two men hauled Fish’s rope – wet rope, hands blistering – God’s will, make the old rope hold! – what a weight, ice slipping under our feet –hey Ivy keep back – you’ll be in on top of them! they’re up – Hey! Stop hauling! One man at the end of Fish’s rope trying to haul both through the wee hole at once – Fish shoves her up – then is nearly drowned himself when some fool empties the whole bucket full of water on top of his face. Girl into the house – back to ours in the darkness for blankets and hot bottles, knocking up the hospital for the nurses and the drawing breaths of relief sitting round a stove in one of our bedrooms trying to sort out what happened.

She – Gow’s wife – is only a youngster – 18, and got very sick in the middle of the night – the mother-in-law, a decent old soul really, got sick of her groans and moans and told Gow to hit her – he didn’t, but said he’d go over to the hospital for medicine – he started out and the mother-in-law said something crossly and the girl, hysterical between pain and bad temper, screamed she was going to kill herself, lifted up her son under her arm and made for the well – fortunately she dropped the kid at the well mouth and jumped in herself. It is quite a small hole, a round lid on the top – Gow had just got his big compound gate open, heard the yells and came racing back – she had decided she preferred to live – Gow dropped the bucket down and got her hauled up a bit, but she dropped back – the mother-in-law held the wheel so that the rope was long enough just to keep her out of the water and Gow ran for help. It must have taken him several minutes to get anyone knocked up to open our compound gates, several more to run a 4 minute walk across our compound and get Fish knocked up – think what water 40 feet down on Christmas day here must feel like! The girl must have been 15 minutes in the water in all – and she’s alive and well.

I don’t know how the ropes held – mine was only a fairly thick skipping rope, and the well rope has been three years in and out of water and lying in the sun. I won’t forget the honour of having them almost up and wondering what under the sun we could get if either rope went and they fell in again. The comic moments – I said there were some, were provided by the mother-in-law – the moment Mamie and I appeared, “The chiaoshihs are here, what are you making that noise about?” went down the well to encourage her. Then, on a fresh outburst of howls, “What! Still shouting! Look at all the trouble you’ve made, getting the chiaoshihs out of their beds on a cold winter morning.” Fish tackling the job of getting himself ready for going down as if he were used to doing it once a week at least – hat and gown off, another small bit of rope tied into mine – that was another of my horrors, I’d seen the knot tied and I couldn’t remember whether it was near his end of the rope or ours – fortunately, we got past it in the first few feet of pulling. Then when he hauled out of the well and the cold air hit him, capering like a mountain goat and asking for his own home shouting, “Ooo! Cold! Cold!” with thirty feet of rope trailing behind him. And the final reaction as I saw Gow passing my window an hour later with the water for breakfast – thank goodness it wasn’t our well she went into!

Fish’s wife and baby son

In a second Christmas Day letter addressed only to her mother, Marion added:

Thought there was no use adding the details in a letter for general family consumption – but the ‘illness’ the young wife was suffering from was a baby! Mamie had been telling me about 2 months ago that with the birth of the girl’s first child they had a terrific time – two days labour up here and then 30 hours by cart to Tiehling where Dr Brown saved both of them by some miracle. She suffered appallingly and the thought of going through it again must have been driving her crazy …

After we had hauled her out of the well and had left her in the hands of the nurses from the hospital, I again said, “Well, if the baby lives after that, it will be a wonder!” But during breakfast the cook said, “Did you know a daughter was born to Gow’s wife half an hour after you got her out of the well?” We heard afterwards the girl hadn’t even warmed up before the child was born – just over 8 months old. New way of having twilight sleep – freeze the patient stiff! Both mother and baby in excellent health thank you!!


Perhaps a less extraordinary Christmas Day, 43 years earlier in China, is described by Constance Douthwaite in Letters from Chefoo:

Chefoo, Sunday December 31, 1893

My dearest Papa,
I think you would be interested in hearing about our Christmas day, so I will give you a little account. We all met at the [Chefoo] Girls’ School for dinner, about 45 in number and over 20 of them children. After a grand Christmas dinner it was quite a sight to see how the little folk thoroughly enjoyed the rare treat of almonds and raisins, dates, toffee, oranges, chocolate, etc. I returned home and, wrapping our little maid well up (it was a bitter day, snowing hard and fast) her father carried her over to the school, and to please the children we all had games together till it grew dusk about four o’clock. Amah held baby on her knee and both quite enjoyed the fun. Then Arthur and I retired and I dressed him up as Father Christmas, in a long scarlet dressing gown, trimmed with white wadding, and his head covered with a great white wig and flowing beard and surmounted by a crown of mistletoe. He stuck some wadding eyebrows on and was so transformed I should not have known him.

Constance and Pearl

Meanwhile they had lit up the splendid big tree which was loaded with presents and the children were all sitting, wild with excitement, waiting for Father Christmas to appear and strip the tree. Pearl sat on my knee and was so excited and delighted with all the “pitty sings” and the “lickle boys and girls” she quite forgot to be shy and frightened. I think everyone got at least half a dozen presents each and all; I had two aprons, a capital match holder, an antimacassar, one of Anna Shipton’s works, a silk tie and numbers of cards. Pearl had a little fluffy dog on wheels which barks when pinched, three dolls, two chocolate boxes, two bibs, a harmonicon, a box of bricks and bags of sweets. She trotted quite bravely up the long room when her name ‘Pearl’ was called, and returned with beaming face, hugging her presents in her arms to shew them to Mother.


Christmas at sea, described in Strangers in Chaotung by Winifred and Frank Tovey

Frank & Winnie on board TSS Empire Brent

Christmas Day, 1947, on board TSS Empire Brent:

It is a Christmas Day such as one never dreams of seeing at home. The sun is shining brilliantly and the sea is quite smooth and calm, and such a deep blue. Winnie and I are sitting out in the sun in summer attire and trying to imagine what you are all doing at home. Early this afternoon we passed Malta … At 6a.m. some brave people arose and went round singing carols. At 7 o’clock we went to a Communion Service, then we had breakfast – just an ordinary breakfast as served aboard, but a wonderful one – grapefruit, cornflakes, fish if wanted, fried egg and bacon, hot cakes and syrup to follow if tummy permitted, scones and toast and marmalade. It isn’t fair on you for us to enlarge upon the wonderful meals we are having. [Food was still rationed in England.]

After dinner, we plan to have a special little party of our own when we are going to cut the wedding cake and play party games. Last night, the ‘carol party’ sang carols on deck and the crew gave a concert. At dinner, all the children (there are 200 on board) came around and sang carols as we ate.


A White Christmas:
In Cor Blimey! Where ‘ave you come from? Winifred Tovey describes the cold winter of 1961 when the family were on furlough in Ockbrook, Derbyshire, England.
The children only knew life in Mysore, South India, where Christmas was warm and usually dry.

Our first snowman

Winnie wrote:
Snow fell that winter, causing great excitement because it was the first time that the children had seen snow. They dashed out into the back yard with their mouths open to catch the snowflakes. As usual they forgot to close the back door and Mother called out, “Close that door, anyone would think you were born in a barn!”


Keeping with the India theme, Natalie Wheatley in her book Tobacco Wife writes about Christmas 1967 in Guntur, S India.
Natalie and family were staying with the Pritchards

We met up with Kamala, our borrowed ayah, in Guntur and the children soon took to her. Getting them to bed was not so easy.

“How is Father Christmas going to bring our stockings?” Susina was genuinely worried and Simon soon picked up that he might be missing out.

“I want Pa Kissmass! Pa Kissmass!” he jumped up and down on the springy bed, almost falling onto the polished terrazzo floor.

Looking quickly round the room, I said, “Air conditioner.”

“Con-dish-ner?” they chorused, “Where’s that?”

“Up in the wall, see,” and I pointed to the square box blowing out cool air and a soft hushy noise. “Father Christmas will come through that.”

Half a century of missionaries in China

Three memoirs and autobiographies – history unaltered by retelling


Letters from Chefoo

Constance Douthwaite’s Life in China 1887-1896

by Sheila McClure

ISBN: 9781916484603

Letters from Chefoo by Sheila McClure, tells the story of Sheila’s great grandmother, Constance Douthwaite (née Groves) who, aged 20, left Bristol for Chefoo in north China as one of ‘The Hundred’ missionaries recruited by James Hudson Taylor in 1886.

Constance’s letters form the main part of the book with Sheila’s well-researched explanatory passages providing context.

In her early letters, Constance describes in detail the exciting, intriguing and alien place that China was over 130 years ago.

Arthur Douthwaite

Two years into her stay, she painfully reveals the obstacle of an engagement she had agreed to before leaving Bristol and her decision that she must travel home to break it off.

Returning to Chefoo she marries the man with whom she had fallen in love – Dr Arthur Douthwaite.

Arthur was the senior doctor and surgeon for the China Inland Mission, as well as head of Chefoo Mission with overall responsibility for the CIM missionaries and the running of the hospital and boys’ and girls’ boarding schools of Chefoo settlement. As a medical missionary’s wife, Constance had many responsibilities alongside becoming a mother and managing her household.

Constance Douthwaite with baby Isabel, autumn 1894

Photographs within the book show her as a serene young woman and in her letters she strives to paint a positive picture (it took two months or more for a letter to reach home, so there was no point in sending worrying details).
But still through her words we get a sense of the physical privations of life in Chefoo, the poor nutrition, the isolation, especially during bitter winter weather, the lack of integration between the Chinese and foreigners, the dangers of childbirth and of epidemics, in particular to babies and children, and always the constant longing for news from home.
Added to this, from 1894 to 1895 were the dangers and challenges of the First Sino-Japanese War.

Constance’s family: Edward and Isabella Groves (seated), Irene, Constance (centre) and Ernest

While Letters from Chefoo describes life in China, it also touches often on the lives of Constance’s Brethren family in Bristol, showing how tough life was all over the world in the 19th century.
Constance lived in a time before radio communications (the first ship to shore radio system developed by Guglielmo Marconi (note below) was used on the Titanic in 1911), before aviation (the first scheduled passenger airline flight on the St. Petersburg to Tampa Airboat Line was in 1914), and before antibiotics (the first antibiotic was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928).
Note: Marconi conducted his ship-to-shore radio transmission trials from Luttrell’s Tower, Calshot beach, as depicted in New Forest artist, Gervase Gregory’s book A Lifetime in Postcards and Maldwin Drummond’s book The Strange History of Seagulls.



Letters from Manchuria

the story of Marion Young, missionary in Japanese-occupied China

by Neil T. Sinclair

ISBN: 9780993507816

This Chinese missionary story takes place over the period of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Letters from Manchuria was compiled by Neil T. Sinclair and his wife Helen, whose mother, Marion Young, was a missionary in China with the Irish Presbyterian mission from 1935-1941.

Marion’s residency certificate

Marion was posted to the isolated, inner Mongolian town of Faku, over 300 miles north of Chefoo, and here the Japanese were already in full occupation when Marion arrived.
Just like Constance, Marion wrote weekly letters home to her family.

Mamie Johnston in retirement, 1984

Sometimes she would enclose a photograph or a hand-drawn map, and always she showed an acute eye for detail along with a good dose of Irish wit, especially when describing adventures she had with fellow missionary Mamie Johnston (note below).

En Fu and Ping An playing in the garden

Marion describes the ‘spits and smells’ of daily life, children in happy play, her work and language study, and the shadier sides of social reality at that time – ‘Christmas morning … wakened to feet running by my window’ – the freezing cold morning when the cook’s daughter-in-law threw herself down the well.
Japanese rule became more and more oppressive during Marion’s time in Manchuria; all letters outward and all those arriving from home were read and censored, even to the point of one censor putting a note on Marion’s brother’s letter to say his handwriting was very untidy. Marion could only make veiled reference to the regular imprisonment and torture of many of the leading Chinese Christians and often she used code words; relating back to the Belfast troubles she had experienced as a child, she called Japanese spies ‘the Black and Tans’. Sometimes, possibly when the letter would be travelling home with a fellow missionary, she was clearer in her description – ‘They treat folk a bit more kindly before freeing them, to give the marks of beating or torture a chance to clear up … isn’t it a bright thought?’

Marion travelling with Wang Ssu Wen and a man to carry their luggage

Foreigners were safe, but constantly watched and asked for papers, such was the suspicion about spies within the church community. Tension rose from 1939 onwards until it seemed much of the mission work – especially the education work – would have to be given up. Marion went on leave in January 1941, just as most missionaries were either instructed or encouraged to depart. Because of the Second World War, it took Marion ten months to get home, via the United States. She left her fiancé, Rymer Cayton, behind in China, not knowing for a year and a half whether he had survived internment.
Note: Mamie Johnston wrote the small volume, I Remember It Well, about her time in China. She went to China in 1923 and stayed on until 1951. In the foreword Rev Dr Austin Fulton writes, ‘We used to say to each other: “Where Mamie is, there things happen.” The pages of this memoir strikingly illustrate this. I hope it will be widely read.’


Strangers in Chaotung

by Winifred Tovey with letters and sections by Frank Tovey
ISBN: 9780956535900

The Second Sino-Japanese War officially began in July 1937 with full-scale invasion of China, and ended in September 1945 after Japan surrendered to China and the Allied forces.
During that time, in the mountains of north Yunnan the American Red Cross built a small hospital at Chaotung (now called ‘Zhaotong’), a walled city 6,300 feet above sea level.
At the end of American presence in that part of Yunnan, the hospital was handed over to the Methodist Missionary Society (MMS) – a logical move as the MMS had sent missionaries to Chaotung since 1886 when Samuel Pollard arrived there from Devon. Pollard was a missionary for the Bible Christians, a splinter group from the Methodist Church. His story is remarkable and can be found in the book Beyond the Clouds by Elliott Kendall.
Strangers in Chaotung takes up the story from 1947 when Frank Tovey, a young houseman in Bedford County Hospital, offered his services to the Methodist Missionary Society (MMS).
When Frank qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) the MMS immediately posted him to China with instruction to set sail in two weeks.

Frank and Winnie’s wedding day, 11th December 1947

But he had just become engaged to Winifred Hill and knowing that the MMS rule was marriage only after a minimum of two years of service in China, they rushed to get a special license and were married six days before departing from Glasgow on the TSS Empire Brent.
Five and a half weeks later they arrived in Hong Kong, to travel onwards by train to Hankow. Having come from war-torn Britain they seemed un-phased by the disturbances and constant troop movements in China, writing home, ‘the Communist fighting in Central China has not got near Hankow so we anticipate an uneventful journey.’
After a period of language study and work in the Methodist Hankow General and Union hospitals, Frank and Winnie travelled to Kunming by Chinese Airways and onward to Chaotung in an old station wagon driven by Ken Parsons (note below), a fellow missionary who with his twin brother had been born in Chaotung in 1916.

Chaotung East Gate, 1948

As with all walled cities, the gates into Chaotung were closed at sundown against bandits and foreigners. The hospital compound was outside the city and gated too.
When Frank and Winnie arrived on foot after dark because the station wagon had broken down, they had to bang on the gate to rouse the occupants from their beds, and then in the light of a single hurricane lamp scuttle past the vicious guard dogs that were let loose in the compound after dark.

Lungste the gardener, cook, the cook’s wife and son, water carrier and housemaid

Over the following seven months, Frank and Winnie worked with the small hospital staff to treat all who came, Winnie doing the accounts and learning how to assist with x-rays and give anaesthetics.

Chaotung hospital outpatients entrance 1948

Provisions were scarce and because of galloping inflation the silver dollars, sent hidden in boxes under a lorry, to pay hospital staff had to be immediately converted into material goods to hold any value at all.

Winnie with newborn Rosemary

Ever present were the bandits and by April 1949 when a baby daughter was born to Winnie and Frank, the days and nights were punctuated by rifle fire from brigands and rebels besieging the city wall.
News came that Nanking had fallen to the Communists. The missionaries in the locality decided (against advice from MMS) to evacuate all women and children home.
They commissioned an old Dakota owned by the Lutheran Mission to carry them over the mountains to Kunming. There was no seating on the plane, no air pressure adjustment and no heating, and the passengers had to sit on the floor of the hold, while the plane lumbered its way between the high mountain peaks.
Frank and Ken stayed on, leaving Chaotung at the end of August, just four days before the Yunnan Revolution was reported.

Chaotung District People’s Hospital, 1981

To follow were three decades of Communist China, a huge country closed to the rest of the world. In 1981, after the death of Mao and fall of the ‘Gang of Four’, Frank was invited to China with Winnie for a lecture tour.
They returned to the Hankow Methodist Hospital, but did not reach Chaotung because of landslides. However they found that the Chaotung District People’s Hospital had been built on the site of the original Chaotung Mission Hospital and was catering for 280,000 outpatients and 13,000 inpatients a year.
Note: Ken Parsons’ twin brother, Keith, has written a book, Our Providential Way, about the lives of their parents, Annie and Harry Parsons, who were missionaries from 1903 to 1926 at Stone Gateway (Shih Men Kan), a settlement built by the early Bible Christian missionaries one day’s mule ride from Chaotung. This book will soon be published by Little Knoll Press.