Full of Praise

A letter from Nancy Smith-Mather serving in South Sudan

February 2015

Write to Shelvis Smith-Mather
Write to Nancy Smith-Mather

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Christmas in South Sudan, Full of Praise

What do you do for Christmas in Africa?
How do South Sudanese celebrate Christmas?
Do you have a Christmas tree?
If you do have a Christmas tree how long does it live in the hot weather?

Andy and Hailey, Sunday School students from Bessemer Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, sent us these questions.  We loved getting their letter, and we thought you all would enjoy hearing some of our responses.

In the many churches in our small town in South Sudan Christmas is celebrated with great enthusiasm!

“On Christmas Eve we are in church for prayers until midnight,” explained a South Sudanese friend. “Then we go home,” she said, her voice filled with excitement, “and get ready to come back to church in the morning to celebrate the day that Mary gave birth to Jesus!”

Youth singing and dancing at a Christmas service in Yei, South Sudan

Youth singing and dancing at a Christmas service in Yei, South Sudan

In South Sudan an abundance of joy surrounds the birth of a child, so the celebration of Mary giving birth to Jesus overflows with thanksgiving.

“Do people exchange gifts?” I asked my friend.

“Parents buy new clothes for their children to wear to church on Christmas Day.  If there is any money left over after that, then it is taken to church and given to God.”

Shelvis and I spent Christmas 2011 in Yei, and we knew that everyone, especially children, put on fancy clothes to go to church on Christmas. So this year we brought out Addie’s best dress, took a family photo, and got to church about two hours after the service started.”

In church the women, the youth, the children, the church mothers all take turns making “presentations” of songs and dances during the Christmas service.  An offering plate is never passed down the aisle, but several offerings are taken during the service.  The basket is held up at the front of the church during each song, and members dance and make joyful noises as they bring forth offerings whenever they feel moved to do so.

We loved participating in the Christmas celebration.  The excitement surrounding the birth of Christ refreshed our spirits.  Our 2-year-old son, however, became a bit restless after about two hours passed.  So we quietly left the church, even though the party was far from over and the sermon had not yet been preached.

Smith-Mather family photo on a sunny Christmas Day

Smith-Mather family photo on a sunny Christmas Day

Later, back in our home, we put on Christmas music and tried to teach Jordan the words to “The Little Drummer Boy.”  He liked the “parumpapumpums.”  The song meant something new to me this Christmas.  I kept picturing a small boy with a drum, intently focused and determined to offer his best.  The boy seemed to understand the greatness of the moment, the honor to merely be in the presence of this great new king, the privilege to be able to offer something to the Christ child.

The great energy in the dancing, singing, and bringing offerings in the Christmas worship service displayed a similar determination to celebrate Jesus with all that one has.  There was also the recognition of the greatness of the moment, an opportunity to give something to Christ, a chance to feel God smiling.

I want to take that same determination and humility into this New Year.  At the moment I feel like the drummer boy who has “no gift to bring.”  Lord, let the reminder of South Sudanese Christians energetically celebrating Your presence in the world inspire me.  The people of South Sudan have endured decades of violence and suffering, yet their praises are heartfelt and filled with passion; help mine to be the same.

Howard Thurman, one of my favorite theologians, wrote a reflection that can guide us, long after the music and emotion of Christmas has passed:

When the song of the angels is still
When the star in the sky is gone
When the Magi are again at home
When the shepherds are back with their sheep

The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people
To keep music in the heart.

—Howard Thurman

Thank you for your support and prayers, which allow our family to seek to live out these aspirations alongside South Sudanese sisters and brothers who inspire us.  May we all continue to give our best and strive to bring a smile to the face of our Servant King.  Amen.

P.S. Andy and Hailey, we did not see a Christmas tree in our town in South Sudan, but you are right that they would not have lasted long in the heat.  Good question.


The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 139

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