Christmas in Aintab with Running Commentary

Christmas at Aintab with photo of Cornelius H. Patton

In my research I came across an interesting description of a missionary Christmas, published in 1911 in the Missionary Herald, but describing Christmas in Aintab in 1910. As I read it, I kept interrupting myself with with questions and comments—rather like the running commentaries you can turn ON or OFF while watching a DVD or online movie. I decided to  re-create the experience for you here in blue (sorry, there’s no Off switch). I wonder if your comments are similar to mine?

A Christmas At Aintab

[Aintab is present day Gaziantep, about 60 mi/95 km north of Aleppo, 115 mi/185 km east of Adana (near the souteast corner of the Mediterranean Sea). It was a mission station of the ABCFM / WBM.]

by Secretary Cornelius H. Patton [It turns out Cornelius, a graduate of Amherst College, had been a pastor of several Congregationalist churches in the United States before becoming a corresponding secretary for the ABCFM. He later wrote books with such titles as The Lure of Africa, World Facts and America’s Responsibility, Christian America in the New World, and my favourite, General Feng Yu Hsiang: the Stonewall Jackson of China’s Army.]

What made the greatest impression upon me was the arrival of the mail. If you have never seen the foreign mail arrive at a remote mission station you have missed one of the great human experiences. For days that mail had been traced in the thoughts and conversations of the missionaries, step by step, from the time the steamer arrived at Beirut until the mud-splashed horseman galloped through the narrow streets of Aintab. A telegram announced the departure from Aleppo, where the railroad ended. [While the telephone system was growing in 1910 in North America, there was no such similar system in Turkey. The main mode of communication was still the telegram. As for the rail system, there had been plans for many years to finish the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, but as of 1911 it was piecemeal, and the tracks stopped at Aleppo.] A messenger, traveling light on a fast horse, reported passing the post on the road; mud deep, progress slow.

Night fell and nobody knew just when the horseman arrived; but Mrs. Merrill [see “Isabel” below] got hold of the big leather bags and came lugging them into the parlor, where she unceremoniously dumped contents on the floor. What a scramble! The missionaries came running in from the girls’ seminary, the hospital, and the orphanage, and all were down on their knees after those Christmas letters. “Here is one for you.” “ Here’s another; and another.” “Here is mine from mother, and a package for the children.”

So it went until the pile of letters and parcels got distributed through the crowd. And then silence as each retired to some corner or nook to open the precious messages from home; only the sound of tearing envelopes, an occasional ejaculation, [meaning “an abrupt exclamation”] and half-uttered sentences as the pages were scanned for the first rapid reading which foreign letters always get. Blessings be upon the foreminded friends who write their letters and make up their packages in time to reach the far-off missionaries at Christmas! [Foreminded is not a real word. He must have meant “friends having forethought”, thinking long before Christmas of faraway friends.] The arrival of the mail put us in a good mood for the festivities to follow. [This passage reminds me of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but not as well written. It is, however, an excellent example of the writing style of the day.]

President and Mrs. Merrill [John was the 38-year-old President of Central Turkey College in Aintab 1905-20. He was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and of Hartford Theological Seminary. His wife was the former Isabel Trowbridge, daughter and granddaughter of missionaries, and a graduate of Vassar College. Their one-and-a-half-year old daughter, Margaret, was with them at Christmas 1910.] had invited all to their house on the college campus for the Christmas Eve jollification. [Ho ho ho, there really is such a word.] A big tree had been cut in the mountains back of Marash [now Kahramanmaraş, 45 mi/70 km northeast] a week before, and Mr. Goodsell and I had brought it with us by pack horse when we came over the plain; [that would be Rev. Fred Goodsell, graduate of the University of California Berkeley, and Hartford, who later was with the YMCA in Russia and helped Susan Wealthy Orvis during her sojourn there. … So, Cornelius and Fred had arranged for someone to cut down a tree and hauled it back to Aintab.] also another one for some friends in Aleppo. [Incomplete sentence. (As is mine). Make that 2 trees.]

No pains were to be spared to make that Christmas the real thing [read: an American Christmas]; trust the ladies of Aintab to see to that [Sorry, men, but you know it’s true. It’s the women the world over who make this sort of thing happen.]. All sorts of little dinner parties were gotten up, no dining room being large enough for the whole crowd, and missionaries, deputation, and Armenian professors were delightfully grouped. There was turkey, of course, [Of course. What American Christmas in Turkey would be complete without turkey? Please excuse the pun.] but candor compels me to say that the turkey gobbler on his native heath does not compare with the Rhode Island or Vermont article. Whether he lacks sufficient grasshoppers or feels oppressed by the government, [ouch!] I cannot say, but he obstinately refuses to put on flesh. What flesh he has is good, though, and I have only a kindly remembrance of the turkey in Turkey as evidenced by the Christmas dinner at Aintab.

The day was cold and dreary and all the better for that. Every charcoal brazier was in requisition, and the donkeys had been bringing extra loads of firewood up College Hill. Conservation not being taught in the Koran [Is that true?], wood is fearfully expensive in that region. [So, I read up on the Qur’an, and his statement is not true. There are passages about being stewards of the land, and on the sin of wastefulness. So how did Cornelius justify cutting down trees for decoration, when wood was so scarce? Is that conservation?] On a smaller occasion one’s conscience would resent so much warmth. [Aha! The big occasion of Christmas is the justification!] In came the children from two homes, and when the friends arrived from the various institutions a yule log [a large log placed at the back of a fire during a traditional Western Christmas] was rolled in which would have done credit to an English manor house. In the midst of appreciative “oh’s and ah’s,” with the fire crackling up the chimney, the distribution of gifts began; characteristic little purchases from the bazaar for the old folks, and toys and dolls for the children, the fruit of the mail bag, I presume [fruit meaning result, not meaning actual, edible fruit].

And now children’s voices are heard out of doors—little Armenian boys and girls with their quaint accent as they raise, “Hark, the herald angels sing,” and other of our English carols. They are the orphans who have come over to give us a Christmas serenade; and as their voices rise on the frosty air there is little to suggest the fearful events of 1909 which robbed them of parents and home. [The events he refers to are often called the “Adana massacres”, but should more properly be called the “Cilicia massacres”, which was the general region. When Sultan Abdulhamid II attempted a counter-coup in April 1909 to get back full power after the Young Turks’ revolution of 1908, the sultan’s supporters in Cilicia (mostly Muslim Turks) began to slaughter those who they believed had sympathized with the revolution, who were (mostly) Christian Armenians. An estimated 30,000 people were killed, leaving thousands of orphans. Ultimately the Sultan was unsuccessful, and was deposed.] But those child voices thrilled my soul. A black past indeed, but a wonderfully bright future for those children as they grow up in the homes and schools where they will be trained for Christian service! [This statement makes me cringe: Training children for service… even if he does mean “in the service of God.”]

So the evening passed, meditation and merriment being pleasantly intermingled. Thoughts went out to loved ones and home scenes far away over the seas, and it seemed rarely [?] appropriate and beautiful when Mrs. Goodsell [Lulu, former student at the University of California] sat down at the piano and closed the festivities by singing Phillips Brooks’s “Last Christmas Carol”:

Christmas in lands of the fir tree and pine,
Christmas in lands of the palm tree and vine;
Christmas where snow peaks stand solemn and white,
Christmas where cornfields lie sunny and bright;
Everywhere, everywhere Christmas tonight!

Christmas where children are hopeful and gay,
Christmas where old men are patient and gray;
Christmas where peace, like a dove in its flight,
Broods o’er brave men in the thick of the fight;
Everywhere, everywhere Christmas tonight!

Old Phillips would never make the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, but it’s a nice sentiment. I do agree with Cornelius’ line about the missionaries thinking of their “loved ones and home scenes far away over the seas.” It’s hard to be away from friends and family at this time of year.

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Thanks to Kathy Martin for posting the scan of the original 1914 Christmas postcard, of which I cut the centre out. I added as a background a 1910 photo of Aintab, and a cutout of Cornelius Patton, taken from a January 1916 edition of the Duluth Evening Herald.

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