Christmas on the High Veld

Well, now that the threat of the Apocalypse seems to have passed, and with my essay marking all squared away, my thoughts have (finally) turned to Christmas. I got to wondering, what was Christmas like for the subjects of my studies – evangelical missionaries in the nineteenth century? I turned to the journals of Elizabeth Price (as the most comprehensive set of missionary musings I happen to have on my shelf) and started scanning letters written in December. Reliable as always Mrs Price provided. From a letter begun (but clearly not finished) on 24th December 1862, and written in ‘Bamanguato’, southern Africa:

‘Yesterday was Christmas Day & we went a pic-nic up to a pretty romantic little nook in the mountains. There Mr Mck [Mackenzie] killed a large black scorpion which the natives told us killed by its sting.’

Swiss missionaries on a picnic in South Africa, 1901From the International Mission Photography Archive

Swiss missionaries on a picnic in South Africa, 1901
From the International Mission Photography Archive

So far (from my, British perspective), not very Christmassy – picnics, scorpions, natives etc. Nor was the difference lost on Elizabeth:

‘Ah! how I thought of the merry merry English Christmas, and of one & another of the beautiful rooms which I have seen hung with holly & mistletoe [sic], & of the fun & merriment – bright Coal fires and shining grates. Like a dream! – a dream of long long ago. I might have lived a century since.’

A century, no; but it had been almost ten years since Elizabeth (or Bessie, as she was known), had been in England for Christmas. But this did not stop her waxing nostalgic, and pointing out the comparisons between her Christmases ‘at home’, and her Christmas in Africa:

‘It is summer here and no holly nor mystletoe [sic] either to be found anywhere. We had no plum-pudding nor turkey – nor even roast beef! for we want all our oxen to take us in to the Makololo [the local people] and no butcher’s stalls you know in Sekhome’s town! We just took our pic-nic basket – a memorable basket by the bye, which has served as a bassinet to 5 babies – 4 at the Matabele [mission station – Inyati, in modern-day Zimbabwe] & one here! we took this basket and a few little things in imitation of mince-pies, with the kettle &c for coffee – the grand African beverage – and up we trudged & climbed over the rocks, soon arriving, and then we gathered round the little white cloth spread upon the green grass – a little company to keep Christmas day in a strange land. We talked about our friends in England with their genuine Christmas parties, and tried to imagine you [her letters is addressed to ‘Dear English friends’], but it was hard work somehow.’   

The funny thing about all of this is that Elizabeth Price was a dyed in the wool south African missionary, daughter of the famous missionaries Mary and Robert Moffat, and later wife of Roger Price, also a missionary in southern Africa. True, unlike most of her siblings Bessie did not spend the early years of her life in Africa, though she was just about born there, coming into the world on board ship, while anchroed in Table Bay, on 16th March 1839. Her parents and family were on their way to England, for their first furlough since Robert Moffat had arrived in South Africa in 1817. True also, then, that Bessie had spent the first four years of her life in England – and indeed that she returned there for her schooling between the years of 1847-54. But given her African roots, her father’s Scottish heritage (hailing from Ormiston, East Lothian), and later her husband’s Welshness (Roger was born in south Wales in 1834), it is still notable that she consistently (throughout her life) idealised the very English style of Christmas described here.

Roger and Bessie Price

Roger and Bessie Price

Of course, for historians of missionary history this is not at all surprising. Missionaries always harked back to an idea of ‘home’ that was centred around the identity of middle-class, English evangelicals. Indeed, often with little or no formal education, and given no training before being dispatched, missionaries established their ‘respectability’ through their piety, and perhaps more importantly through ‘cultivat[ing] middle-class attitudes’ (according to Neil Gunson, among others). The self-help evangelicalism of missionaries became a common trope in the hagiography of evangelical writings. At the same time ‘the missionary imperial project was central to the construction of Victorian middle-class identity, or at least to one influential version of it’, argues Susan Thorne. Non-conformist piety and evangelical association became the means by which ‘Victorian evangelicals constructed their case for respectability.’ Domesticity and the family were crucial to this process. Manifesting correct domestic relationships was a vital part of middle-class social status.

The irony of that, was that missionaries so often ruptured the domestic family unit for the sake of that respectability. Bessie Price had spent seven years of her childhood at the boarding school for missionary daughters in England, Walthamstow Hall, and her own children were also educated in England, the eldest four left there when the Price’s first furlough ended in 1879. Providing their children with a respectable education, away from the ‘pernicious’ influence of local children, became quite typical for evangelical missionaries from the mid-century (Walthamstow Hall was founded in 1838, and the boy’s department, later Eltham College, in 1842). Of course, education in England only served to reinforce this ideological reliance on English respectability and class identity.

Thus, Elizabeth wrote to her four eldest children (Rogie: 16, Isabel, 14, Jeanie: 13, and Bessie Jr: 12) just before Christmas in 1880 – her first Christmas without them. Again, having by now spent a total of fifteen years of her life in England, and twenty-six years in Africa, she found herself affected by the difference between her ideal English Christmas, and the one she was having in Molepolole [modern-day Botswana, and their mission station for eighteen years]:

‘Dear children,

Roger and Bessie Price at Molepolole, 1888

Roger and Bessie Price at Molepolole, 1888

Christmas is approaching everyone feels – but how much more in England do you realise it than do we out here in out hot scorching summer weather. It would be nice to wake on Christmas morning and look out and see snow everywhere and to feel the sharp frosty air and the deliciousness of a bright glowing fire as you do.- but then you know it would not be Molepolole would it? dear old place – and tho we lack the bright glowing joy and fun of Christmas here, we need not lack the sweet contentment or the thrilling, inspiring happiness and thankfulness of those who know what Christmas means – and which makes all conditions and positions enjoyable and pleasant.’

For, like most missionaries, Bessie squared the circle of her unhappiness through her faith, and her vocation: to spread the ‘Good News’ around which Christmas was centred. Way back in 1868 she had noted to her sister Jean:

‘Did I tell you how the new church was crowded & how twice the number sat outside on Xmas day when they prayed for rain… The doors were so blocked up that the crowd pressed in at the eindows behind as well. Roger could not hold the service inside after all – and even in getting a centre-seat he could with difficulty balance himself in passing thro’ the seated crowd… Is it not glorious?’

So there was no mistletoe, no plum-pudding, turkey or roast beef; the sun was too hot, and there was no snow – but there seemed at least to be something of a Christmas spirit (mixed in as it was with the need for rain). And for Bessie and Roger Price, was this not, indeed, glorious?

Christmas celebration of the Young Men's Christian Association in Cameroon, c. 1889-1910

Christmas celebration of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Cameroon, c. 1889-1910
From the International Mission Photography Archive
[click image for link]

Merry Christmas!

– Emily Manktelow

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