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12/24 Christmas Eve

Many PCVs go back to America for the holidays; others go to London or Amsterdam or other European cities. But some set of us - maybe half, I'd guess? - stay in Morocco. We don't get it as a holiday. We get Moroccan holidays, but not American ones.* So I used my vacation time to gather with Christians for Christmas. :)

I've planned for months to go to the nearby Monastery for Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day. As I told people about this, lots expressed interest in joining in. Trying to confirm plans with a group of PCVs is a lot like herding cats; many of us don't have dependable cell phone coverage, let alone internet access, so we're a hard gang to be in communication with.

But I did what I could, and ended up making reservations for the monastery's guesthouse for Christmas Eve dinner, guest rooms, and Christmas Day lunch. I had to guess as to the number who would be coming, but it turned out not to matter; only two one-person rooms were available, so the rest of us would be on the floor anyway. The kind people on the phone spoke Spanish and a bit of French, where I speak English and a bit of French; our languages didn't overlap quite enough to work everything out, but when we showed up - including more than had told me they were coming - they went ahead and opened up a bunkhouse for visiting pilgrims. The guesthouse was mostly filled by a French family. They had planned their entire vacation around being at the monastery for midnight mass. Over dinner, the mom and I discussed the difficulties of transportation in and around Morocco, swapping stories.

The monks had set two tables for dinner. Knowing that some brothers spoke French and some Spanish - none spoke much English - we PCVs divided ourselves by those language groups. Fortunately, nearly all of us had studied one or the other, at least a little. The dinner was simple but good, and showcased traditional Moroccan food. In the morning, we discovered that the cook was Berber, and in fact grew up not far from Berberville. :)

Dinner was at 6:45, and lasted probably an hour or so. That left us with a few hours to fill before midnight mass, which actually started at 10:45. Most of us went to visit the memorial to the martyred monks (see my post from August) and then to the church itself. I brought my camera, so that I could take pictures well before the service started. I may be an inveterate shutterbug, but I know better than to disturb a mass! The church is lovely, plus it had a buta heater, so several of us ended up staying in there for the whole time until the service.

The mass was conducted in French, but I found an English missal in the back, and, with help from a Catholic friend who explained what it was, was able to find the directions for the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and therefore follow along throughout the service.

The service began with psalms, sung in plainchant as they have been for a over a millenium. The psalm numbers were posted, and psalmistries distributed to us all. This lasted until midnight, when the Midnight Mass actually began. The designated passages were read by monks, nuns from the nearby convent, and members of the visiting French family.

Of the five permanent residents of the monastery, four are actually priests; only one is technically a brother. The eucharist section of the mass was therefore a rather crowded affair, with four men jointly invoking the holy rituals over the wafers and wine. Only two of the PCVs there were (are) Catholic; the rest of us did not take communion, but were still welcomed.

At one point, the littlest boy in the large French family was given the task of carrying the small wooden figure of Christ child in, and placing him in the gorgeous nativity scene arranged under the alter. I hadn't even noticed his absence when I'd looked at it earlier, but it does make sense that Jesus isn't there before Christmas technically begins, at midnight. :)

The service continued until about 1:15. (I don't think any of us had expected it to run a full two and a half hours!) Afterwards, there were cocoa and pastries for us all, in the small dining room. We finally went to bed around 2:30am Christmas morning.

I've been trying not to editorialize, because I was a guest and not a critic, but I do want to say that the service was lovely, and that I'm very grateful I got to attend. :D

As we walked back to the bunkhouse, more than one of us said, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!"

* On getting Moroccan holidays instead of American ones: There's actually some discussion starting up within Peace Corps Morocco about that; different Peace Corps countries handle holidays in different ways, and some of us think that it would make more sense to get American holidays off. Most of us choose to spend Moroccan holidays with our host families anyway, so we don't really get them as out-of-site vacation

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps