For Ruth, Christmas has always been all about the music – preparing the church choir and school choirs for Christmas services, teaching her piano pupils a few Christmassy pieces, accompanying Mhairi when she sings for a special Christmas concert or service, and spending hours at the piano herself playing through her books of Christmas arrangements before they get put away for the next 11 months….
But these last 3 Christmas’s have been very different. Our first Christmas in Malawi, Ruth’s keyboard still had not been shipped, and we were unaware of the “music scene” in Blantyre, and we had no internet access during the holiday. We soon discovered that our traditional Christmas carols are not well known in Malawian churches (even though many of the hymns they sing are translations of western hymns), except “Usikuwo, Woyerawo” (Silent Night) which everyone seems to know!
This Christmas has been very different. It has again been filled with music. Firstly, we have good internet now, unlimited at the weekend, so over recent weeks we have enjoyed Classic FM dishing out beautiful carols and instrumental Christmas music. Last Sunday’s “A Winchester Christmas” made us feel very nostalgic, and if we are home we will tune in to Carols from Kings (Radio 4) on Christmas Eve.
Since September Ruth has been playing violin with the Blantyre Music Society, and earlier in December enjoyed being a part of their Christmas Concert, with carols and highlights from Saint-Saen’s “Christmas Oratorio”, and various other seasonal treats from around the world. The Music Society is about 80% azungu (which is actually why Ruth resisted joining it until now!) but the best soloist was without a doubt an amazing Malawian baritone. The concert was in Blantyre’s own St Paul’s Cathedral (locally known as “Bishop Mackenzie”) complete with organ.
Then last week we attended another annual musical event we were previously unaware of, where the all-Malawian Blantyre Joint Choirs perform their Christmas Cantata. This included a mixture of our traditional carols (but the only one we were allowed to join in with was “Usikuwo, Woyerawo”!), and some of the big choruses and famous arias from Handel’s Messiah. These were all unaccompanied, and performed from memory. The music was impressive.
The closest we came to the kind of traditional Christmas carol singing we are used to was provided by Blantyre Community Church, the international church whose house-group we attend. Last week we enjoyed having a good sing (and play for Ruth) of many of our favourite carols at the home of the McGrath’s – after a wonderful roast chicken dinner. The only thing that wasn’t Christmassy – the temperature!
But Ruth has probably gained most pleasure from preparing Echoes of Grace for Christmas. This week they lead a special morning devotions for staff and some of the patients and guardians at Beit Cure hospital, and yesterday, they have been part of a charity concert, raising money for the children who live on the streets of Blantyre. Myles was an honorary “Echo” for these two events, enjoying the opportunity to sing again “Great, Great Joy”, which he learnt with Mickfield Evangelical church choir a few years back. But unlike Mickfield, Echoes sing everything from memory – and find it impossible to sing such a joyful jazzy number without a bit of movement!! Ruth also played some instrumental music at this event, a guitar-keyboard duet of “O Holy Night” with a local solo artist, and a jazzed up Christmas medley with the Echoes instrumentalists.
We are looking forward to spending Christmas Day worshipping at our Blantyre “home church”, Limbe ZEC. On our first Christmas in Malawi, we attended their Christmas Day service, and although we were very new, and could not understand the Chichewa, we came away feeling it was the most joyful Christmas Day service we had ever attended! They might do things differently – but they know how to celebrate the coming of the Lord Jesus to earth!
This is likely to be our last Christmas in Malawi. Next Christmas we expect to be back in the UK, and undoubtedly there are things we will enjoy revisiting – the family Christmas concert (soon it will be our grand-children performing, not our children), “A Debenham Christmas” in the hall above the former “Red Lion” in our village, and lots of Christmas carol services – UK style. We look forward to wrapping up in hat and scarf and gloves and going to the Christmas carols run on the farm next to Andrew’s Barn Coffee Shop, and sitting back to watch Mhairi in action leading her church’s Christmas worship. But a little bit of us will always be back here in Malawi – remembering these precious occasions with these wonderful people we are sharing Christmas with this year.