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By: Fr. Aedan McGrath
SHANGHAI PRISON would not be high on everybody’s list as a place to spend Christmas, and though we prisoners could not see or talk to one another we could not let Christmas pass with out celebrating it. And celebrate it we did.
For months several prisoners had been secretly writing messages to me on a sheet of rough brown toilet paper the only paper we had. I used to write in return. Through this correspondence I actually gave a complete course of religious instructions to one prisoner, Wolf Gruen, a German Engineer who was in prison on a trumped up charge of espionage
Whether the communist suspected me or not, I cannot say, but I rationed on paper. How ever, coming near Christmas I had mentioned in a letter to one that every time Bing Crosby went to Mass in Hollywood, the priest always knew he was there because there would be a $50 bill in the collection basket. This prisoner sent me a little parcel saying: “This is not a $50 bill but at least it can be used in God’s work.’
In the parcel were 50 sheets of toilet paper. I decided to make Christmas cards and send them to my fellow prisoners.
The Christmas cards I made was not I fear, a work of art, but I was pleased with it. It had a star penciled in one corner and the rays from the star shone down on a crib in the opposite corner. On the top I wrote: Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to men of good will, and on the bottom: Mary brought forth her first-born Son and wrap Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger
I sent out a couple of dozen of these cards and other prisoners send card to me. Wolf Gruen’s card had a candle with wax dripping down on to holly, a little poem with Christmas greetings. Another prisoner’s card was two sheets of paper ingeniously suck together with soap. On the first sheet a window was cut and when I opened the window I could see on the second a little church covered with snow. We were delighted with our cards and through them our Christmas wishes went round to from cell to cell. The Communist guards knew nothing about it.
Two bays before Christmas I had great stroke of luck. I was summoned downstairs and given three tins of food and two bars of chocolate. I learned afterwards that Father MacElroy, my superior in Shanghai had been sending food to me ever since I had arrested the year before but this was the first time I had received any of it.
Back in my cell I look to see what I had got. Beautiful pork, beautiful beef, peaches. Other prisoners had been receiving food parcels occasionally, and they used to send me little bits of food. Now I was able to give them something. It was not very much when I share among 25 or thirty people, but after our normal diet of rice and vegetables, it was banquet fare, far more precious than the turkey dinner at home.
I got notes of thanks. One prisoner wrote: ‘Oh Father, I have dreamed of peaches and chocolates and who would ever think at Christmas they would come along.’
Wolf Gruen used to get out a journal. He wrote in on a sheet of toilet paper and filled it with little incidents in the prison which he would play up in a most amusing fashion. Just before Christmas another prisoner decided to bring out a rival journal. It had a wonderful editorial on Christmas. The gist of it was something like this: We must all get behind this Little Man (the little man being the Christ Child born in Bethlehem). Lets all, every nation here; get behind him, look at all He has done for us during these years and look at the peace and joy He has brought us in inside prison just thinking about Him.
I received a strange request fro Wolf Gruen. He wanted my empty toothpaste tube. I sent it to him, and on Christmas Eve I received a present –a beautiful pencil-holder made out of the tube. He had rolled the metal very tightly, the wrapped paper around it and covered the paper with a pattern of multi coloured threads pulled from his socks. He gave similar holders as Christmas present to some other prisoners and we were able to put our little butts of pencil into them.
Alas for our nice pencil-holders! A few days after Christmas we were all suddenly brought out of our cells and made to stand facing the wall on the corridor outside. The guards searched every cell, found our pencil –holders and crushed them into smithereens.
They didn’t found our Christmas cards because we had been tipped off and we had destroyed them all.
As far as the communist were concerned the monotonous routine of prison life remained unchanged for Christmas Eve. WE rose with the whistle in the morning, had our rice and vegetables passed in through the bars twice daily and looked at the grey prison walls all day. But with our Christmas spirit. Wolf Gruen sent me a note which expressed the feelings of us all. He said: ‘Never in my life have I known a Christmas as happy as this. There is so much give and take. We are all suffering yet there is such good feeling between us.’
I was particularly glad he had said that. Only few weeks before, knowing that he was depressed and unhappy’ I had sent him a note in which I said: May God give you peace of mind’.
And that time he had replied: ‘You speak of peace of mind, that heaven-sent gift. I have never known it.
Strange that he should get peace and happiness at Christmas in a Communist prison! Wolf Gruen was a Jew, and when he was released from prison and expelled from china he was baptized and received into Catholic Church.
Another letter also gave me great pleasure: It was from another prisoner, an American businessman, who at exercise one day had whispered, Father, can you give me some prayer?’ He was a protestant and I told him that any prayers I give would have the name of Our Lady in them. “That’s alright by me, Father’, he replied. I sent him the prayers. His letter of thanks contained as great a tribute to Our Lady as I have ever heard.
‘Now I always pray through Our Lady’, he wrote,’ And Father, do you know what its like? It’s like putting aviation gasoline into jeep.
On Christmas Eve word passed around that we must be very quite at five o’clock, when the guards would be changed. We didn’t know why or from whom the message came, but at five o’ clock there wasn’t a sound from our row of cells. Suddenly a young American prisoner burst out in a beautiful tenor voice and, against all the rules of the prison- we weren’t supposed even to whisper- he sung Silent Night. The notes of the famous Christmas Carol pierced the prison gloom: Silent night, Holy night...
There wasn’t a sound until he had finished the last note and then there was a terrific burst of clapping from every cell. Immediately we heard the guard rushing up the stairs to the singer’s cell and of course he was punished. A week or so later we saw him at exercise and he passed the message round: ‘Boys, it was worth it.’
Christmas Day was rather an anti climax after the excitement of Christmas Eve. We didn’t mind; we were happy and we had made the communist take note of the feast. But the irrepressible Gruen caused another incident. He was passing my cell after being down in the prison yard for exercise when he whispered: Happy Christmas Father’. The guard on the floor below happened to be looking up and he came charging upstairs to my cell.
‘What did he say?’ he demanded. ‘Oh, he just said Happy Christmas.’ I replied.
‘There is no such thing a Christmas in this prison. You are all criminals; you are not allowed to celebrate Christmas.’
I was beginning to feel very brave by this time so I retorted: ‘You can’t stop me celebrating Christmas. My Christmas is in my heart.’ I knew I spoke for all.
And each year at Christmas time I recall with gratitude those great friends, men of many nations, who shared the hardships and joy of that Christmas in prison. Wherever they may be, my wish for them is that it may always be Christmas in their heart. As a great missionary priest once said: For those who love God, every day is Christmas day.’