From 1946 to 1978, congregations throughout the U.S. and Canada compiled nearly 1 million MCC Christmas bundles, packages of clothes, toys and other items for children in need around the world.
We hope you enjoy this glimpse of how MCC supporters in past decades shared Christmas cheer with families around the world. And we invite you to continue this tradition by taking part in MCC Christmas giving today.
Top photo: A kindergarten class receives MCC Christmas bundles at the Methodist Church, Wiener Reichsstrasse 260, Lins, Austria, in 1961. (MCC photo/J.N. Thiessen)
The beginning: Christmas bundles offer clothes and toys for children in war-torn Europe
The first collection of MCC Christmas bundles was in 1946 for children in war-torn Europe. They were called “Goodwill Christmas Bundles” and were developed as a way for Sunday School classes, Bible schools, junior sewing circles, “missionary societies,” families and even individuals to make physical contributions to help those in need. Nearly 15,000 bundles were collected that year, and numbers continued to grow. In 1952, Germany received 19,610 of the total 43,697 bundles distributed in 11 countries.
The country continued to reel from the devastation of World War II. "The whole area was one of depression – countless refugee barracks, large empty buildings, blasted bunkers and a few smoking stacks of the operating factories," writes MCC worker Margaret Pauls, describing Salzgitter, Germany, and reporting on a distribution of Christmas bundles in an article for the February 1952 edition of the MCC publication, European Relief Notes.
In this area, MCC distributed 2,000 Christmas bundles before Christmas, and she recounts one distribution to 300 children at a schoolhouse.
"Everyone sang the familiar Christmas carols," she writes. Small children gave short recitations. "I told them a Christmas story and then explained to the children and their mothers who had come from whom these packages were. Each child was asked to come forward to receive a bundle.
"Then came the highlight of the day. Time was given for them to open their bundles. The 'ohs' and 'ahs' and 'ach wie suess' (oh how cute) could be heard all over the place. We were as anxious and curious as the children.
"The mother admired the trousers, the pullover and above all the lovely towel. She remarked about how neatly and with what care these bundles had been packed. She saw the 'love' that radiated from these bundles."
- MCC worker Margaret Pauls
"Here was a little boy opening his package...He looked at one thing and then another until we heard, 'Oh, Mutti, schau.' He found his car ... The mother admired the trousers, the pullover and above all the lovely towel. She remarked about how neatly and with what care these bundles had been packed. She saw the 'love' that radiated from these bundles." Each child received a New Testament with the bundle, and a lot of the children said an extra thank you for these. "Many lost their Bibles when they fled from their homes during the war."
Johanna Sutter who grew up in Frankenthal, Germany, still vividly remembers the Christmas bundle she received in the aftermath of World War II.
“One thing in the package was a nylon comb that was hot pink with rhinestones. I thought it was the most wonderful thing,” she says. “And I still have the little blue and white eraser nub.” She and her siblings even tested the big bar of Ivory soap to make sure it lived up to its promise of being able to float, much to the chagrin of their father. (Read more about how MCC supplies made a difference for Sutter and how she gives back to others through MCC now.)
And bundles serve as a witness to Christ's way of peace and forgiveness
As much as clothes and other items were needed, sometimes the impact of Christmas bundles reached much deeper.
In 1947, with a church building, homes and lives devastated by German attacks during World War II, a small Mennonite congregation in the Netherlands, in the midst of rebuilding its own community, donated to MCC’s work, directing it to be used to meet needs in Germany.
“It was just the week after the distribution of more than 100 of the most lovely Christmas packages from MCC to our children. And we all agreed that we should like so very much to give something ourselves to help others ‘in the name of Christ,’” a letter from pastor M. (full first name not known) de Boer in Vlissingen states. “The young people did the work and almost all the members of the church gave something. For a few it was too difficult, still to help the German people but the others all agreed that they did want to do just that ...”
As years pass, Christmas bundles touch lives in countries from Asia to the Middle East
MCC photo/Norman Wingert
The breadth of countries receiving Christmas bundles continued to grow through the 1940s and 1950s, expanding to include Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines and more.
In Korea in the 1950s, thousands of people did not have adequate food, shelter or clothing. MCC responded, shipping carloads of canned meat and flour, as well as powdered milk and other items, and providing assistance to institutions such as orphanages, schools and hospitals. Christmas bundles were part of this broader effort.
They weren't just touching lives in Asia. In 1958, 28,500 children received Christmas bundles in places from Taiwan to Indonesia to Paraguay to Jordan and the West Bank.
In the 1950s, MCC was working with displaced Palestinians in refugee camps in Jordan and the West Bank, and with churches and institutions in locations like Bethlehem.
“A Christmas bundle to a refugee child was more than a mere clothing gift. It gave the child something personal, HIS clothing and toys; something to which he could cling to in unfamiliar and unfriendly surroundings. What a colourful piece of clothing can do to make a bewildered child smile and laugh again is miraculous,” reads a quote from a relief worker (not named) in the 1951 pamphlet for Christmas bundles.
MCC photo/Bessie Plant
Christmas bundles brought not only useful items of clothing but the delight of dolls and toys.
“Shall it be a doll or a ball?” the 1958 MCC Christmas bundle pamphlet asks. “Let your child and family share in the Christmas bundle project. The happiness of your family working together is as important as the joy of the family receiving the gift.” Donors were asked to give $1 for a New Testament to include in the bundle and to help cover the costs of shipping and distribution. Throughout the years the pamphlets stressed that Christmas bundles were just one part of the assistance needed by families around the world. “Keep your Christmas bundle contribution in proportion to your total contribution for relief,” the pamphlet urges.
As Christmas bundle distributions expanded far beyond the reaches of Europe, MCC developed a list of items for a bundle suited to tropical climates.
For a boy, a tropical MCC Christmas bundle included lightweight trousers (long or short) with elastic or belt, a lightweight sport shirt, a handkerchief, soap and a toy. A girl's bundle included a lightweight skirt, a lightweight blouse, a handkerchief, soap and a toy.
And bundles bring wider worlds within reach for the boys and girls in the U.S. and Canada who make them
Each year, MCC's Christmas bundle pamphlets exhorted parents to include their children in helping to make the bundles. And as children, families and churches compiled Christmas bundles, young people came to know the work of MCC, and the challenges that families around the world were facing, in a new way.
Photo provided by Ken Sensenig
Ken Sensenig, assistant executive director of MCC East Coast who grew up on a farm in Lancaster County, remembers this vividly in his own life.
He tells the story:
About 1960, the annual call came through the churches, including to the conservative enclave of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference at the Martindale Mennonite Church. The message was clear. You can make a difference in people’s lives – far away. Word was that Mennonite Central Committee shares Christmas bundles with faraway refugees.
My parents elected to participate. A bundle of blessing went out from the Sensenig home. In those days, MCC invited donors to include their names and addresses in the bundles.
Months later, a postcard from Jericho arrived at the Sensenig farm just outside Akron. The card pictured a refugee settlement near Jericho. A hand-drawn arrow on the photo showed where “our family” lived.
As a 6-year-old, the photo offered a rare and precious glimpse into a world I could hardly imagine.
Postcard provided by Ken Sensenig
My father placed the picture under the big plate glass cover protecting his desk. There it stayed throughout my growing up years. The photo provided a bridge between a secure Mennonite farm near Akron and the tentativeness of a Jericho refugee settlement.
After three decades on the farm, my parents downsized their living situation to a smaller house on the same property. Here they lived for another 30 years. While the photo passed from view, the visual impression stayed with me. Nearly 60 years after receiving the picture, my parents moved to a retirement home in 2019. My siblings and I sorted and dispersed all their accumulated memories. I found the photo in my father’s desk. I knew exactly what it was.
Today I reflect on three decades of my life embedded in this same international church agency, MCC. I often wonder how one postcard under the desk glass atop my father’s desk impacted my life choices. What role did an international image under the desk glass play as it offered decades of silent witness to the curious eyes of children?
Sensenig has served with MCC for decades, including in Swaziland in the 1980s, in Sudan in the 1990s and in MCC East Coast in recent years.
Did MCC Christmas bundles play a role in your life or faith? Let us know. As part of MCC's centennial, we're inviting people to share their MCC stories. Learn more and upload a story, video or photo.
Interested in how you can spread Christmas cheer with families around the world today? Check out MCC Christmas giving, or request a free resource that families can use to talk about generosity with their children this Christmas season.