Father Joe Bragotti shares memories from his first Christmas in Uganda

When people ask me about some of my most memorable Christmas celebrations, my thoughts always go back to my first Christmas in Africa. On December 10, 1967 I reached the mission of Pajule, a down-to-the-bare-bones rural mission in North Uganda, staffed by two thirty-something Comboni priests, an 80-year old brother, a half a dozen Ugandan Sisters and a large team of catechists.

They really didn’t need me, but it was the custom at the time to send new arrivals to one of these frontline missions where they would learn the Acholi language, make the usual mistakes and sample the local culture – in short, I was a missionary “intern.”

Pajule in December, 200 miles North of the Equator and at the height of the dry season, was one of the hottest places on earth and there were only 15 days left till Christmas.

And what a Christmas it was!

I noticed that the children, who had become my self-appointed language teachers, were masters at fashioning figurines out of the mud found in the riverbed. Mostly they created long horn cattle and wild animals. I decided to put them to work on a Nativity Scene.

We brought in a wheelbarrow full of mud and got to work. Pretty soon we had a St. Joseph, a Blessed Mother and a baby Jesus in a crib about the size of a cookie. My artists added a couple of shepherds and a legion of cattle and sheep. We also had an angel and a star with a fat tail that looked like a link of Polish sausage. Palm branches and banana leaves provided the decoration. We set the whole menagerie on a small table near the altar and stood there for a long time to admire our creation.

The kids were overjoyed!

The next day I drove the 30 miles to the nearest town to pick up the mail. A Hindu merchant there gave me a box of tinsel from their temple, a bag of candy for the children and a bottle of Johnny Walker for the fathers (God bless him!). The tinsel added sparkle to the Nativity scene, the candy delighted the children, the bottle was put away for after Christmas.

People coming to church for the Christmas novena were ecstatic. Of course, to the usual songs and prayers of the novena we added another little ritual: the figurines had to be “watered” daily so they wouldn’t dry up and turn to dust.

On Christmas day I said my first Mass in Acholi in the main church, then hopped on my motorcycle and took off for the hills where I said two more Masses for people who had been gathering since the previous day to celebrate Christmas. By the time we all got home it was dark. We feasted on a chicken, broke open the merchant’s bottle and listened to the late news from the BBC on our little short wave radio.

We watered the figurines for two more days, then we let them return to dust, loaded the remains on the old wheelbarrow and dumped them behind the church.

On that Christmas day, for the first time I did not have the winter scene, the snow, the lights, the carols, the tree, Santa, the reindeer, the shopping, the gifts and all the other trappings we associate with Christmas. Yet it was a “Very, Very Merry Christmas.” Jesus was born in our midst and we wished him a happy birthday.

Now, I know that every year we engage in this war of words over whether it is “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Lately, like most everything else, this “holy war” has been hijacked by politicians and by quasi-religious zealots. Be true to yourself and wish me what you feel comfortable with. But, remember… if you take away the winter scene, the snow, the lights, the carols, the tree, Santa, the reindeer, the shopping, the gifts and all the other trappings, all you have left is frayed nerves, bills to be paid and a pile of leftovers.

You may just as well bring in the wheelbarrow and dump it all. None of that is Christmas. If you believe in Christmas, even without all of the above, you still have it all, Jesus is born.

Let it be a happy time for all: It’s Jesus’ Birthday!

Have a Merry, Holy, Peaceful, Simple, Loving and Caring Christmas! Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Father Joe Bragotti with the “artists” who helped make a Nativity scene from mud in dry Ugandan December.
In 1967 Father Joe Bragotti enlisted the help of children living in Pajule to create a mud Nativity scene.
Father Joe Bragotti celebrates his first Mass in the Acholi language on Christmas Day 1967.
It’s a quiet night around the fire in Pajule, Uganda where Father Joe Bragotti celebrated his first Christmas in the mission field.
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