When I was growing up in England Christmas was in midwinter. My Mum and Dad always invited those who would otherwise spend the day alone to Christmas lunch with our family. We enjoyed gathering around our large table with whoever came.
After we were married, my husband and I moved to the remote Highlands of PNG to live and work. Our first Christmas there was shaping up to be a lonely affair. At that stage we didn’t know many people. I had cooked a chicken but as there was no one to share it with It didn’t seem right. Then we saw a highlander coming down our unmade road. To his surprise we invited him in. He was barefoot. His face was dark brown and leathery and deeply etched with lines. Although he spoke his own language, he didn’t speak English. Awkward at first, he soon relaxed as he hungrily ate the roast chicken.
We spent over twelve years in the Highlands. Lonely at first, I prayed that God would bring people to our door. As the stream of people who came increased, and with two young children in tow, it meant quiet moments were rare. Never again did we experience a lonely Christmas like our first.
One particular Christmas there is forever etched in my mind. Due to a chronic shortage of doctors my husband, although appointed Medical Superintendent of the busy 250-bed community base hospital, used to look after patients as well as giving anaesthetics. (It was the type of hospital where relatives slept on or under the beds so you couldn’t tell who the patient was.)
The Christmas day that I write about, my husband was on general duty for the whole hospital. While he was in the hospital, I got on with preparing Christmas lunch, not only for our family but other people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. They included an American family of six, a Scottish Anglican priest and an Australian medical student. At the appointed time the guests were assembled, but there was no sign of my husband or the other guest American surgeon Mary-Lois, who belonged to a Catholic medical missionary order.
The meal was ready to be served and I was getting anxious as there was no message from my husband in the hospital. In his absence I decided to ask the Scottish Anglican priest to carve the chickens. We went ahead with the meal without my husband or the surgeon.
Eventually about 4 pm my husband and Mary-Lois came for a belated lunch which I had kept for them. They explained there had been a tribal fight and injured warriors had poured into the hospital with arrow wounds that needed urgent surgery. They had been in the operating theatre, Mary-Lois operating and my husband giving the anaesthetics, hence they were unable to contact me. (At that time bows and arrows were the main weapons used in tribal fights)
Dr Mary-Lois had worked in a number of other countries before coming to the Highlands of PNG. She wrote a telling article about her work in the Highlands. In the article, which was printed in the American College of Surgeons Bulletin, she described the Highlands as being, ‘One of the earth’s last remaining wild places’. It certainly was.