A Missionary Christmas,
far away and long ago
For Parley P. And Phoebe Pratt, Christmas in 1851 was very different and distant from that of their native land.
However, in the intimacy of their missionary home in Valparaíso, Chile, they experienced a real nativity in their temporary quarters with the birth of their son in a faraway city, as did Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem with their newborn Babe.
Christmas in 1851 came in the springtime. The country and gardens were blossoming, offering natural riches to these missionaries who had traveled long distances to observe the conditions of the countries in South America with the view of establishing the recently restores gospel among them.
For Parley, this was a Christmas filled with nostalgia for his home in the Rocky Mountains, for his cold, rugged homeland and the sleighs used during this time of the year. The weather in the Rocky Mountains contrasted sharply with the Southern Hemisphere, where it is hot, just the opposite from the climate where Elder Pratt served as missionary and pioneer.
This was a different Christmas for Phoebe as well, without snow and with songs in a language she didn’t understand –songs what spoke in her heart that in this distant region, in a strange and unknown tongue, the residents also gave tribute to the Savior of the world.
In this distant port called Valparaiso, residents remember the Savior’s birth by mounting cribs and manger scenes on wagons and taking them wherever the doors of homes open for the people to admire. The wagons and carts are pulled by horses or oxen along streets filled with the Magi and kings, and followed by people singing and caroling.
Large figures of the nativity, Joseph, Mary and the Child, shepherds, animals, are elaborated by the inhabitants of the old Indian communities of Talagante and Pomaire, who enjoy the adorned streets and homes of their community as web as the wooden games, sticks horses, wagons decorated in the outfits of the Chilean workers with sandals, ponchos and straw hats.They celebrate also with plates of eggs, nests of birds and platters overflowing with newly harvested wheat. All of this was presented to the missionaries, the family of strangers who resided in Valparaiso. All around them were those who opened their doors for the people passing, to enter to admire the beautiful baby, festive with their occasional visitors with drinks and sweets of their homeland, and candy for the Chilean children.
The families celebrated Christmas with cake, stuffed turkey, sweets in the shape of doves, honey candy, and traditional treats of drie peaches, a cinamon drink, an almond drink, watermelon drink, along with lemon and orange drinks.
The table, truly the family alter, had a white mantle with a great variety of the fresh fruits available in Chile.
With the rest of the inhabitants, Parley and Phoebe, accompanied by Rufus Allen and their newborn baby; whom they named Omner, also enjoyed the Christmas season with its smells of Chile: smells of sweet basil, carnations, and the great variety of fruits that they watched mature in the patio of their home on Victoria Street. Their thoughts at this moment of remembrance undoubtedly turned to the distant Bethlehem, where the Savior of the world was born in humble circumstances to leave His expiation as an inheritance – a great gift, a road to eternal perfection with the possibility of returning with our loved ones to live with Heavenly Father.
Without a doubt, the Christmas of 1851 was for these missionaries a different experience, but at the same time, of a similar spirit the imbued the inhabitants and their children who also observed the birth of the Savior of the world. It was a spirit they felt as they reflected on their altarpieces, mangers and figures of the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem. Chilean children also arose very early to see their humble gifts on Christmas morning.
This is what Christmas was like in Chile in 1851. Those Christmas scenes have been repeated many times since. And since then, the good news of the Restoration has taken hold in Chile. This adds special meaning to the efforts of Parley, Phoebe and Rufus, the first witnesses of the gospel in Chile on that distant and long ago.
Merry Christmas Dear Brethren
Rodolfo A. Acevedo A.
[Rodolfo A. Acevedo is the Chilean Historian of the Catholic University and member of the LDS Church in Chile.]