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Sitting in the very last wooden pew in the small chapel in the remote Ozarks woods, I’m waiting for the noon mass to begin. A few minutes earlier, a group of three men dragged in a large cedar tree and placed it at the front of the chapel as a Christmas tree. Now, then entire chapel is filled with the powerful smell of cedar.
Father Cyprian Harrison leads the monastery of Trappist monks in rural Douglas County, Missouri.
“Christmas decorations and music start in the stores, and around the country before Thanksgiving now. But for us, the four weeks before are a time of Advent—it’s a more quiet, rather subdued time where we pray, reflect, do a little penance, fasting, preparing for the coming of the Lord,” Father Cyprian said.
On Christmas Eve, he said, the monastery usually begins to celebrate Christmas. The monks and a few local helpers chop down several Christmas trees on their property; they’re placed in the dining hall, the chapel, and other rooms.
On Christmas, the monks and their visitors hold three masses; the first, Father Cyprian says, begins at midnight.
“At midnight, there’s the mass with the atmosphere of the angels announcing the good news, and singing ‘Glory to God in the highest, peace on Earth.’ And some of our neighbors are in retreat, and come and share in mass,” he said.
The second mass is at dawn on Christmas morning, he said. This is called the “Shepherd’s mass.” Then, on noon Christmas day, is a third, final mass.
Then, they celebrate Christmas with a dinner—there won’t be meat, he said, but the monks will get to enjoy their internationally-renowned fruitcake, which they labor on in the fall months.
Father Cyprian reflects on the difference between Christmas before entering the monastic life, and after. His parents were raised in Illinois, but he was raised in Indiana.
“But every Christmas, we would load up the family, and drive to Belvidere, [Illinois]. And as kids, that was kind of heaven on earth—grandmother’s house, where we celebrated and had presents under the tree and all that,” he recalls.
“When I entered the monastery, there was that loss of the family—the human, natural family tie and celebration. The monastic celebration was quite a change. It was more quiet, and more silent. But the chanting, the religious dimension of it was deeper, and more full. So, as you say, I lost something, and I gained something,” he said.
This year, he will celebrate the birth of Christ with five American monks, and two Vietnamese monks who are part of an exchange program between monasteries.
Also, the monastery’s guest rooms will be filled with guests for Christmas, many of whom don’t have family members to share the holiday with.
This year, a Vietnamese nun from Springfield will be on retreat at Assumption Abbey over Christmas.
“And she’s quite enthusiastic about cooking Vietnamese dishes for us for Christmas. So this will be an added bonus for us,” Father Cyprian said.