Christmas at St. John’s Health Village, India

 In News, Visiting Reports

Frédérique Hutter, gallerist from Zurich, spent Christmas this year in a different way; with the St. John’s Community at St. John’s in South India. In her report, the ambassador of the SANNI Foundation describes her experiences.

When I arrived in St. John’s on 13 December, the first thing that moved me was the loving Christmas decoration. Colored chains of lights and shining stars were mounted all over the area. A red, glowing Santa Claus had been attached to a tree as a coronation, surrounded by even more coloured lights. In front of the building in which the classroom is located, the older boys built an oversized crib very elaborately and with a lot of attention to detail with crib figures and candles and technical skill. All this without the knowledge of Father Jose, who was very proud and impressed by the result and the creativity of his children.

In the pre-Christmas period, starting in mid-December, Father Jose goes on “Carol Tour” every other evening with the children, where they perform a repertoire of Christmas songs, dressed as Santa Clauses and dancing, supported by a band and amplifiers. Up to 30 private houses and church institutions are visited in one evening for the church collections, where the rehearsed interlude is played again and again tirelessly. The people expect the singing Clauses with great joy. I went along four times and was able to experience and feel the joy of the children and the people very closely until late into the night. The children were rewarded with sweets and food from the inhabitants. For me it was a very interesting experience and study, I have seen almost a hundred houses (!) from the inside, from very poor to very rich houses. Something that nobody else gets to see without further ado.
Shortly before Christmas, on 22 December, most children travel to relatives or acquaintances during the Christmas holidays and do not return until 29 December. There are then about ten children left, who have no one to spend Christmas with. But Father Jose takes care of them each year with a full program touchingly, like a father. I was allowed to be there this year. On December 24th at 8 p.m. the Christmas mass starts in the church of St. John’s. Father Jose had already celebrated Mass in two other churches before. The first church and Christmas party took place in a very poor village where Father Jose is very active and supports the villagers where he can. He showed me the whole village and the houses, which look very dilapidated and most of them are still unfinished. With only two thousand Euros per house you could install windows, a working kitchen and a proper floor instead of the damp, disease-causing loam floor. This would enormously improve the quality of life of the residents. I asked Father Jose how many houses in the village needed such help. He spoke of ten houses. Then the whole village would be “rehabilitated” for ten families and the next generation. I calculated the total amount in my head and thought once again that with relatively little money one can achieve so much – change a whole village image and make about a hundred people happy!

On this Christmas Eve in this village another encounter touched me very much. During my walk through the village with Father Jose before the church celebration, I was greeted and examined nicely by the inhabitants. I then saw them all singing for another hour and praying at the Christmas party in the church. After the mass and the obligatory fireworks two women approached me and gave me a small present. I was very touched and somewhat ashamed that I had nothing to give myself. I opened the gift, excited about what was inside and found a really beautiful little angel in a glass ball, about the size of a light bulb, which can be made to glow with a rotary switch in the colors red, blue and green. A little miracle! The eyes of the women shone when they saw my great joy and my emotion.

At 9.30 pm we were back in St. John’s on time to start the third and last Christmas party. Unlike the Sunday masses, Christmas carols were also sung. The highlight, at midnight, was a loud fireworks display, as well as Christmas cakes for all churchgoers, which were solemnly cut by Father Jose. Afterwards one heard from all sides “Merry Christmas” and joyful laughter. The girls had made themselves particularly pretty for this occasion with Indian, festive dresses. There was a familiar and warm atmosphere on this evening.

On the following day, December 25th, the Cardinal himself comes for breakfast. After being greeted and welcomed with a large rectangular Christmas cake decorated with his name in glaze, he distributed gifts to the sisters and priests and to the children who remained. Afterwards breakfast is served. I was allowed to sit next to him and he spoke to me in perfect German.

At noon we went on the annual Christmas Day trip for the “survivors”, including me. The goal was to visit the family of Fr Jose, more precisely his home where he grew up. On the way there there is a river, which the children already knew from earlier visits. They really wanted to go there to fish. They were spontaneously bathed in the river (with their clothes), laughed and fished successfully. After everyone had moved and was dry again, we finally set off for our final destination. The mother and siblings of Fr Jose were already waiting for us with great anticipation. Here we ate again, it felt very relaxed, the children knew the house and felt at home here. At the end of the afternoon, already tired but with the wish – as promised by Father Jose – to go elephant riding, we made our way to a kind of zoo. When we arrived, everyone was wide awake again and full of excited anticipation for the elephants. In the end, not everyone dared to ride these big animals, but everyone was enthusiastic and impressed by the pachyderms and still talks about them today. Late we arrived at home in St. John’s and fell into our beds tired to death but happy.
That’s how Christmas must be – and all that at 29°C!

Frédérique Hutter, December 2018

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