Christmas in Vancouver, December 25, 1856

In the true spirit of Bethlehem, the sisters and clergymen made do with what they had on their first Christmas in the Northwest. Given some of the excesses of the present-day celebration of the feast, it may be hard for us to imagine the joy they derived from the simplicity of that Nativity in Vancouver. The sisters’ account in Chronicles is fairly brief:

I must not, either, ignore our beautiful Christmas Feast. On the eve, Mr. the Vicar General [Brouillet] gave a holiday to his workers, the bench is converted into an altar, white cotton covered it as well as the wall, adorned with pine branches arranged in the form of crowns around a beautiful tableau of the Blessed Virgin; a few sticks mounted with candles made up the luminary. Sister Blandine and a soldier took charge of the music; the latter accompanied on his little harmonium [a small, free-reed organ]. Oh! How great he seemed, the Child of Bethlehem, stooping in this humble hovel! How impressive was that midnight mass, where only a few people attended, like the Shepherds of yore! How beautiful it was that “Gloria in excelsis”, sung by our Holy Bishop whose harmonious voice seemed to descend from Heaven!!... Never had midnight mass had so much charm for she who is writing these pages.

A creche with a wax infant made by a Sister of Providence. The Archives holds several excellent examples of these infants, in addition to the molds used by Mother Joseph to craft the infant’s arms and legs.
Cake of the Kings
by Mother Caron

2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 pound butter
1 tbsp. white wine or water
5 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup golden raisins
crushed almonds (optional)

Mix flour, sugar and butter until a crumbly texture. Add wine, beaten eggs and baking powder. Mix well. Add raisins and optional almonds. Pour mixture into a greased 9-inch round pan. Scatter beans in mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes.

Absent is any mention of food or gifts—instead we read of light, music, prayer, and song. There must have been some melancholy memories of family and the dear sisters at the Asile, but we can sense in the writing an excitement, even if a bit naïve, and an embrace of this new, hard life and all its challenges. The narrative continues with a description of the feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings. Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, is the finale of the Advent and Christmas seasons and recalls the arrival of the Three Kings at the stable in Bethlehem. It also marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas that begin on Christmas Day and end on January 5.

There was the same solemnity on the great day of Epiphany; this day is certainly a feast of prayers for the missionary’s heart, who wants nothing more than to bring Faith to the people seated in the shadow of death, but it is also a day of innocent rejoicing in religious communities.

Do not think that we did not know how to celebrate; on the eve, our good Assistant, Sister Praxedes, made a cake with a pea and a bean: fortune made Sister Joseph the King and Sister Mary of the Precious Blood the Queen; in the evening, there we were erecting a throne. In the blink of an eye, the beds piled one on top of the other, we braided pine branches interlaced with banderoles [streamers], and willingly or not, the royalty mounted on the throne and scepter in hand received the petitions of their subjects…

The Epiphany cake is a tradition in many western European countries. A bean and a raisin (or pea) are baked in a cake and whoever discovers the bean is designated the King; the raisin, the Queen. The King and Queen are feted and they prepare a party for the next day. This traditional festivity is still celebrated in the Sisters of Providence religious community, and can be part of your celebration with this simple recipe from Superior General Mother Caron. Mother Caron's recipes were published in 1878, “to aid the sisters in becoming good cooks.”

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A Room of Their Own, Dec. 16, 1856
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The Bishop's Mandate, Dec. 31, 1856


Journal and Letters of the Five Foundresses, 1856. Record Group 13: Mother Joseph Collection. Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.

Chronicles of Providence Academy, Vancouver, 1856-1875. Record Group 22: Providence Academy. Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.