Happy Christmas! If you're reading this, you must have just recently watched the annual Call the Midwife holiday episode. Our friends from Poplar have hit the road once again, this time to help an isolated Scottish community with a serious shortage of medical personnel. Let's take a look back at this visually beauiful and emotionally heartwarming episode.
It’s December 1964 and a fair number of Nonnatus House residents are suffering from a nasty virus. Reinforcements from the Mother House have been assigned to Poplar so with auxiliary nuns in place, Mother Mildred suggests the recovering midwives should go away for the holidays to convalesce.
In private, the Superior admits to Sister Julienne that her true purpose for suggesting this excursion is less about recuperation and more about expanding the order’s reach of service to the Scottish Outer Hebrides. The remote area has lost its only district nurse to marriage and Mother Mildred has two intentions - to temporarily fill the village's healthcare void and to put out feelers concerning the installment of another branch of Nonnatus midwives.
Mildred also recruits the Turners and Fred Buckle to join her Scottish fact-finding mission. In fact, the only regular staff to be left behind are Sister Frances who will mind the Turner children, Sister Hilda who will fill in for Sister Julienne and Sister Monica Joan who is considered too frail for the journey. As the taxis carrying the Poplar contingent pull away from Nonnatus House, the elderly nun pouts, upset that her chance to encounter a Christ-like white stag has passed her by. Save your pity! Monica Joan’s a resourceful and wily old nun.
The trip from London to the Isle of Harris is long and tedious. From a train journey crammed into a crowded carriage to a slowly twisting van ride repeatedly interrupted by livestock, the group’s patience is tried. Nurse Crane finally takes matters into her own confident hands, commandeering the vehicle from the more cautious Mr. Buckle.
When they finally arrive at their lodgings (a church transformed into a now abandoned youth hostel), our crew have quite a daunting job ahead of them. The old structure is drafty, dusty, and if the smell is any indication, littered with animal droppings. As the midwives prepare for bed, Trixie offers around a tin of Nurse Crane’s Fiery Jack rubbing ointment in hopes it will provide some heat.
The next morning the midwives and company meet Morag Norrie who is some way responsible for the village hall where their medical clinics will be held. She matter-of-factly informs them that the islanders don’t labor on the Sabbath, the electricity is finicky and the nearest doctor is two hours away.
While there is an initial fear that no one show up, our nurses are treated to a rather healthy rush of villagers including a woman who has just given birth in a truck. She’s lost quite a bit of blood and has yet to deliver the placenta which ends up being a concerning complication. The team of Shelagh, Trixie and Dr. Turner stabilize the patient and a crisis is adverted.
Fred and Valerie go in search of a Christmas tree to cheer the children coming to the vaccination clinic. Val notices the village has displayed little in the way of holiday spirit, but Fred has plans to adorn the tree with copious amounts of paper chains.
Turns out there’s a reason for the lack of decorations. Mrs. Norrie is livid over the Christmas tree which she calls a pagan monstrosity. It is not their custom and she demands it be removed before more harm is done. Fred immediately disposes of the offending tree.
For context, it should be noted that Christmas (or Yule) was abolished in 1640 by the Parliament of Scotland, and only became a public holiday there in 1958.
From here, several storylines take shape:
Effie Tolmie is a teenager with a wild headful of red hair, reminiscent of Merida from Brave and just as strong-willed. She doesn’t like choir practice, sneaks cigarettes and seems generally resentful and moody. Since her mother died of TB, she has lived with her Aunt Mina and her young cousin Isla.
One day as Mina is hanging laundry outdoors, Effie and Isla dance to a Beatles song on the wireless. Isla gets too close to the fire, catching her nightdress alight. Hearing her daughter’s screams, Mina rushes to her side.
The midwives arrive to attend to Isla’s burns and Nurse Crane assures Mina that her daughter’s care won’t require a hospital stay. Mina explains that she worries about her uncontrollable niece Effie who mustn’t be allowed to make the same mistakes as her mother- among them having a baby out of wedlock.
Later Mina goes out for some singing-folding ritual with her friends but Effie can’t be bothered to stay home with Isla. She has a date with a bottle of whiskey and assures her cousin the nurses will be there soon to check on her.
Isla is very uncooperative when Trixie and Phyllis show up to change her burn dressings. Trixie suggests Isla behave for a reward, which in her case, is the little calf she loves. Trixie goes to fetch him, and he isn’t all the cooperative either.
Once in the house, the calf does the trick and Isla calms right down as Nurse Crane pulls off her dressings. Meanwhile Effie is drinking herself into a stupor with nothing to protect her from the wind and rain that has recently whipped up.
On the way back to their quarters, Phyllis and Trixie come across Effie lying in the road. They take her back with them and Nurse Crane sends a message to Aunt Mina. Trixie can smell the whiskey on Effie’s skin. Phyllis offers to attend to the girl knowing it’s difficult for Trixie to be around. Trixie understands all too well that Effie’s not bad, she’s unhappy.
The next morning, Phyllis pours out the rest of Effie’s whiskey and has a heart to heart with the hungover teenager. Effie mentions her father and the fact that she’s a bastard. Nurse Crane shares that she is too and feels that their mothers were courageous for keeping them. She suggests to Effie that being proud of herself would be a good start.
In the meantime, Trixie has filled Aunt Mina in on Effie’s troubles. After a little bit of scolding, Mina assures Effie the she’s not a mistake, but a gift.
Janet MacAskill has gone into labor, but her lighthouse keeper husband Angus will be fired if he leaves his post so he must radio for help to come to them.
Dr. Turner, Fred, Nurses Dyer and Anderson are dispatched but the local ferryman refuses to row them over to the lighthouse citing the Commandment forbidding labor on the Sabbath. Since Mrs. MacAskill has no choice but to labor, the foursome row themselves over to the lighthouse instead.
Once there, the group are led to the frightened patient who is experiencing fever and pain. Lucille and Valerie tell her not to worry because they do this every day. Fred sits with Angus while Janet delivers a healthy son with the help of her two knowledgeable midwives.
But don’t get too comfortable. Those unassociated pains and fever Janet was experiencing before the birth weren’t just random. Dr. Turner diagnoses acute appendicitis. Transport is requested, but the storm makes moving her impossible. Cool-headed Nurse Dyer oversees preparation of a makeshift operating theatre in the lighthouse dining room. Dr. Turner hasn’t performed this procedure since the war. He fears he will make a mistake, but Fred encourages him to get out there.
Conditions are already less than ideal and then the storm knocks the power out. Lucille administers the anesthesia, Fred lights the operating space with an oil lamp and Val assists Dr. Turner. He successfully removes a greatly inflamed appendix which would certainly have burst.
Despite all the lifesaving work of Poplar’s finest, Mother Mildred has received disappointing news concerning her plan to establish a Nonnatun presence on the island. The local council has declined to lease the church/hostel to the order citing the denominational divide between the Anglican nuns and the Presbyterians. Mildred fears she was hasty and didn’t hear the Lord’s calling properly. Sister Monica Joan (who has finagled her way to the Outer Hebrides on a spiritual quest) suggests that God has not yet shown her all that he intends.
And so the elderly nun sets off in search of a messianic deer. She momentarily spots the white stag near some rock formations before he wanders off. When Mother Mildred and Sister Julienne catch up to her, an overjoyed Monica Joan tells her sisters,
“I knew Him at once from the love in his glance. He came, He looked and He departed.”
Mother Mildred accepts Monica Joan’s account seriously and respectfully, saying they will accept His blessing and look for Him in another place.
Before the midwives take their leave from Scotland, they are invited to a celebration at the village hall. The locals express their thanks and the nurses sing a carol for the group.
Reggie has a dream of his own
Meanwhile back in Poplar... After the initial disappointment of Fred not being there for Reggie’s return home for the Christmas season, Violet tries to keep the young man’s mind busy by getting him involved in the youth club’s service project. They are packing Christmas parcels for those in need, but Reggie has no interest.
In fact, he gets up and moves to another table to work on making paper chains. Miss Higgins, who is overseeing the activity, walks over to see if Reggie wants any assistance. He explains that he wants to get in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest paper chain.
Miss Higgins runs with the idea by calling up the world record officials then organizes the community so that Reggie’s wish can be realized. A slightly concerned (and perhaps jealous) Violet calls her husband with the news. Immediately he starts scavenging in the trash for the paper chains he’d made for the discarded tree. When Mina learns what Fred's trying to do, she recruits the villagers to make more paper chains to add to Reggie's record -breaking attempt.
Back at home, a crowd assembles in front of Nonnatus House with a brass band and children in costume. The paper chains made in Scotland are joined with the ones assembled in Poplar. The community gathers to hold the strands of Reggie's dream aloft in triumph for an official photographer to document their accomplishment.
As we linger in the warmth of the holidays with the Nonnatus crew, Call the Midwife prepares to enter the mid-60’s. The coming season is sure to address the social and medical issues that defined 1965. Let’s chat about how you felt about this special and what you’d like to see when the gang returns to PBS this March!