Before there can be tidings of comfort and joy this Christmas, the nurses must tend to Poplar's ever-present heartache
Credit: PBS

At the conclusion of Call the Midwife‘s season 4 run back in May, things were looking pretty bleak for the residents of Nonnatus House. Nurse Trixie Franklin had confronted her alcoholism, Nurse Patsy Mount was silently crushed over her girlfriend Delia Busby’s brain damage, and there was no shortage of depressing story lines befalling the citizens of Poplar, like the case of the pregnant lady who was given thalidomide to combat her hyperemesis gravidarum. Fun!

Now, we all know that if the good people of London’s East End didn’t have births with complications or life-threatening ailments that required the attention of the Nonnatus nurses, there wouldn’t be a Call the Midwife. But, aside from a few bits of drama here and there, tonight’s heartwarming Holiday Special was a welcome reprieve from CTM‘s shock-value-riddled earlier episodes this year. By the end, everyone was enjoying a very merry Christmas.

The events that threatened Poplar’s Christmas 1960 were nothing to sniff at, however. For starters, there was a measles outbreak (the vaccine was still several years away), which put a BBC-broadcasted children’s carol service at the local church in jeopardy. I had mixed emotions about this subplot: It was a great opportunity for Laura Main’s Shelagh Turner to demonstrate grace under pressure when dealing with insensitive TV producer Mr. Swann (“Will it be a good-looking newborn baby?” he asks of the Nativity scene’s infant Jesus) — Main’s underused comic sensibilities really shined in tonight’s episode. But it was hard to take this story line seriously when one measles-stricken little girl falls unconscious and is taken away to the hospital, never to be heard from again. This is, unfortunately, a typical CTM trait — introduce a character, have something terrible happen to him/her, and never offer up an epilogue.

Also, Nonnatus House is rattled to the core when Sister Monica Joan falls ill herself (not with measles, but a 102-degree fever isn’t a good sign for anyone, especially not someone who is “nearly 90”), and her tenuous lucidity is once again called into question when she goes missing for several days. But despite Sister MJ’s tendency to wander, anyone who watches this show regularly knows that her unmistakable, flowery speech belies a wisdom most of us can only hope to achieve someday.

Strangely enough, it is the almost-nonagenarian nun who pushes her fellow sisters to adopt a more 20th-century take on Christmas celebrations (“We are out of kilter with the world!”): Specifically, she wants a television. “It is a portal to much happiness!” she declares. Sister MJ’s demands are callously shot down by the austere-minded Sister Evangelina, who dismisses the retired midwife’s pleas that her “youth was not a happy one!” as rubbish. (Quick reference: Sister MJ is from a wealthy, prominent family — which is in direct contrast to Sister Evie’s rough-and-tumble upbringing — but as the crack in Judy Parfitt’s voice suggests, it doesn’t sound like those bundles of money came with a bundle of love attached.)

A distraught MJ then runs away, sending the nuns into a panic, especially when a couple of fishermen spot an old woman floating in the River Thames a few days later. The stringy, gray hair on the woman, as well as a recovered wimple and pair of shoes are heralds of what could be the gloomiest plot development on CTM yet. But when Sisters Evie and Julienne arrive at the morgue to identify the body, they are relieved to discover the corpse is not Sister MJ. Being the good nuns they are, Evie and Julie are also visibly distraught over the death of this poor, unnamed soul.

NEXT: “This is where my life is”

MJ, it turns out, is very much alive and, after spending a chilly night in an abandoned barn, has made her way to her family’s sprawling estate, which is now occupied by two young squatters with a penchant for protests and peace symbols (there are nuclear weapons nearby, apparently). Regardless of MJ’s belief that everyone should go home for Christmas (which is why she’s there), it’s still a little head-scratching as to why she wanted to return to “a house of discord.” Eh, it ups the drama factor, I guess. In the big Sister Monica Joan-dies-but-doesn’t-actually-die moment, we hear the shrill voice of her mother, scolding “Antonia” for keeping a Bible in her room before the camera slowly pans away to reveal MJ on a makeshift deathbed, the sun streaming through the windows. The unpleasant locale also makes for a touching reunion when Evie, who’s been racked with guilt ever since MJ went missing, figures out where the erstwhile Antonia Keville is, and gets Fred Buckle to drive her out there so the two religious sisters can pray and make up.

After her season 4 finale story line left her distraught and alone, it was great to see some festive tidings in store for Patsy, who had an unexpected run-in with Delia in tonight’s episode. The Welsh nurse, who is in town visiting relatives, has significantly recovered from her brain injury, and not only remembers Patsy, but wants to resume their relationship upon her eventual return to London. Trouble is, Mrs. Busby wants her daughter to stay in Wales permanently, and despite the woman’s apparent cluelessness regarding the nature of Delia’s relationship with Patsy back in the finale, it’s possible she’s gotten hip to it by now. Delia mentions how she wrote Patsy several letters — and that her mother was supposed to have posted them. Patsy’s startled expression is all we (and the characters) need to know that those letters never reached the mailbox.

Another obstacle to the girls’ happiness is the fact that Delia’s doctors haven’t said she’s out of the woods yet. So the two lovers must part ways again — at least for the time being. But we leave the two on a much more hopeful note than we did in the finale, as Delia is determined to come back to London — and to Patsy — as soon as she is able. “This is where my life is,” she declares to her girlfriend. It won’t be an easy road for them, as Call the Midwife knows all too well, but the further these characters get into the ’60s, the more likely they will be the conduits of necessary change.

While the Christmas cheer was plentiful in the Holiday Special, there was one character who received an extra-special portion of, well, joy, tonight. Lurking in the shadows throughout the narrative was mousy church cleaning lady Iris Willens. Twenty-two years after suffering the devastating death of her 4-month-old baby (that Call the Midwife, they love to pile it on), Iris continues to lick her wounds of loss and loneliness. Plus it’s not easy to maintain perspective when Poplar continues to be a breeding ground for new babies, one of the latest breeders being Iris’ niece, who bears a set of twins.

So when the 46-year-old Iris doubles over in pain during the final stretch of the episode, and Dr. Turner informs her that, no, she didn’t go through early menopause like she initially thought, we can forgive the clichéd nature of this plot twist — because this woman’s misery had gone on for far too long.

NEXT: Joy to the World

This could also be why Iris’ birth was attended to by the two most soothing characters on the entire series: Maternal-warmth incarnate Sister Julienne (who delivered Iris’ first child, the departed Lorna) and the equally comforting Shelagh. And don’t get me started on the moment Julienne tells the still-mourning Iris that “Love is not going to be halved, but doubled.” Sob city.

An awesomeness honorable mention must also go to haberdasher Violet Gee (she and new hubby Fred are still holding steady as Poplar’s Most Lovable Couple) here, who rigged the community-wide layette raffle upon hearing the news about Iris. After all, it’s not like Iris had made any preparations for her new daughter, whom she touchingly named Joy — it was kind of sprung on her at the last minute. I guess we’ll chalk her not noticing a swelling belly up to middle-age weight gain.

With little Joy satisfying Mr. Swann’s demands of a “good-looking baby” for the church carol service, the BBC captured the makeshift choir — comprised of the Nonnatus House nuns and midwives — in all its black-and-white glory. Though color is hardly necessary to highlight Laura Main’s angelic rendition of “Silent Night.” (In case you haven’t picked up on it, Main/Shelagh is without a doubt this episode’s MVP.)

As the Nonnatuns settled in to celebrate Christmas 1960, they watched their performance with their loved ones — on the greatest gift one could possibly receive that holiday (next to a surprise baby): A brand-new television set, courtesy of Sister Monica Joan.

Better be careful, sisters. Nurse Phyllis Crane, champion of the Rolodex, might demand a Xerox machine next season.

Stray observations:

  • Sorry, Chummy Noakes fans, but it may be time to say farewell to Miranda Hart’s wonderfully droll upper-class midwife — at least in our hearts. After making little more than cameos in the season 4 premiere and finale, Chummy was MIA in tonight’s Holiday Special. This, unfortunately, makes a lot of sense considering Hart has also confirmed that her schedule will preclude her from appearing in season 5, which is scheduled for spring 2016.
  • For all of Sister Monica Joan’s talk about going home for Christmas, it was pretty messed up that Nurse Barbara Gilbert wasn’t allowed to head up to Liverpool for one measly day.
  • Speaking of Nurse Babs: What do you all think of the sherbet lolly-flirtation between her and curate Tom Hereward (a.k.a. Trixie’s ex)? They do seem better suited, but that would be a major girl-code violation there. Actress Charlotte Ritchie also won the episode with her delivery on the very un-2015 line, “If you stump up for more Broderie Anglaise, they can be very frilly indeed!” (BBC producer Mr. Swann really wanted the nurses to wear “frilly little caps.” Which they did.)
  • Also, wasn’t Tom supposed to have headed off to Newcastle by now? That was the whole reasoning behind his breakup with Trixie.
  • While I was pleased to see that Trixie has been staying on the wagon, I was a little bummed that her recovery wasn’t covered more in depth tonight. All we got was Helen George’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line about how alcohol is bad for the complexion.

Episode Recaps

Call the Midwife

Set in the 1950s, this BBC period drama (which airs on PBS stateside) follows nurse midwives working on the East End of London.

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