Christmas is approaching, bringing with it not another snowstorm but a dear guest – and I don’t mean Santa. Trixie is returning to Nonnatus from her reprieve in Italy, but she’s preempted by another visitor and news that will take the Nonnatan sisters away from Poplar for a bit. The Mother Superior of their order has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and all sisters have been called to the Mother House to elect a new leader. Sister Mildred is on her way to the Mother House from Hong Kong with four Chinese orphans bound for the orphanage there, but due to fog and travel delays she stops in Poplar first, distracting from Trixie’s arrival. So, almost as soon as Trixie shows up, Sisters Julienne and Winifred, along with Mildred and the orphans, are off.
Monica Joan stays at Nonnatus due to minor illness, not that she’s sad to miss the trip: the Mother House upsets her, since it will most likely be where she lives out her days once she retires. Sister Julienne would also rather miss the election. She seems to be the top choice for Mother Superior – the ailing current Mother is praying that Julienne be elected – but that would take her away from service in the community and relegate her to office-work. She has never dreaded anything more.
Sister Winifred, at least, is happy at the Mother House. She is eager to show love to the children in the orphanage, particularly one boy who suffered brain damage at birth and is not even on the list to be adopted because he requires so much care. But Winifred quickly makes progress with him, bringing him to interact with the other children more often. She seems to have found her calling, and wants to stay at the orphanage rather than return to Poplar once the election is over.
Sister Mildred objects to Winifred’s wish. As nuns, she says, they should abnegate their own desires to serve God’s calling and go where the Nonnatans need them. But Winifred argues that the children at the orphanage need her, too – isn’t it better to answer a personal calling than an impersonal bureaucratic one? Sister Julienne listens carefully to this debate.
Until the election, however, Julienne has plenty to distract her. She has been charged with organizing the chaotic office and paperwork of the Mother Superior, which got out of control as the Mother’s health deteriorated. Julienne calls Shelagh to the Mother House for help with this task, and, since Shelagh is off from the clinic for a couple weeks over the holiday, she agrees to make the trip.
Shelagh leaves behind a reduced nursing staff in Poplar, but women are increasingly opting for hospital births over midwife-led births, so the midwives aren’t too busy. Back at work, Trixie makes a house call on a pregnant woman to whom she’s already delivered two babies, and learns that Mavis has decided to have this child at the hospital – her sister was pampered there when she gave birth.
But when Mavis goes into labor, the hospital is full. She is told to go to another hospital on the other side of the borough, but if she wants to take an ambulance she’ll have to wait an hour. She and her husband set off on foot, but the labor pains soon overwhelm her and she sends her husband off to Nonnatus. Trixie, Lucille, and Valerie all rush to Mavis and prepare her for delivery on the street. Laying blankets on the ground, they guide Mavis through birth, and once the baby is delivered safely, an ambulance finally arrives. Trixie may have ruined a fancy French dress delivering the baby, but a Nonnatan midwife, unlike the hospital, will always do everything she can to help a woman in need.
The midwives further demonstrate the extent of their care by shopping for Christmas gifts for Mavis’s children while she convalesces. Doctor Turner completes Christmas for the family by giving them the Turner’s old aluminum tree – they didn’t have time to prepare for the holiday, given Mavis’s pregnancy.
Shelagh and Fred want to bring holiday cheer to the orphanage, too. Shelagh asks Violet to make costumes for a nativity play at the orphanage. Fred originally wanted to bring used toys to the children but was dissuaded by Violet – no one wants dirty toys scrounged from the garbage. Instead, he has acquired a donkey from his friend at the zoo (reindeer weren’t available).
But first, the election of a new Mother Superior must happen. Happily for Sister Julienne, the Nonnatans choose Sister Mildred, who in her first act assigns Sister Winifred to stay at the orphanage. Apparently, Winifred’s arguments had an effect. Sister Julienne will return to Poplar, where she has had an effect on so many lives – including that of a distraught pregnant woman who has shown up at the Mother House.
That woman keeps appearing on the grounds of the Mother House and running away any time someone notices her. Finally, Sister Winifred catches her and persuades her to come in and talk. She reveals that her name is Lena, and that she spent time at the orphanage as a child – it was the last time she was happy. She was sent to live in Australia and ended up on a farm, forced by cruel overseers to labor in the hot Australian sun. She eventually married an older man, and used his money to pay her way back to England when he died.
Although she spent time in the Mother House, she was born in Poplar. After her parents died, she was sent to the orphanage, but her brother Billy was left in Poplar – his clubfoot would keep most parents from adopting him. The last memory Lena has of her brother is of him holding the hand of a kind Nonnatan – Sister Julienne – while the bus taking her to the Mother House pulled away.
Lena soon goes into labor, and Sister Julienne and Shelagh safely deliver her baby boy, whom she names Billy. The two midwives want to help the lonely Lena more, however, so Shelagh calls the clinic in Poplar to see if she can learn more about Lena’s past. Due to her efforts, when Fred and Violet arrive with the costumes and donkey for the nativity play, they bring an incredible Christmas present: Lena’s brother Billy. He’s married, but has no kids, and asks Lena and her new son to come back to London and live with him and his wife.
Shelagh has one more act of generosity for the holidays. Three of the four Chinese orphans brought by Sister Mildred to the Mother House have been picked up by their families, but the oldest, May, cannot be adopted for another year. Yet she’s suffering at the orphanage, not eating very much or socializing, and Mildred does not want her to have to stay there another whole year. Shelagh and Dr. Turner decide to bring May home with them and foster her until her adoptive parents can take her.
All of these happy families, midwives, and children make their way back to Poplar just in time for another wonderful Christmas celebration. Lucille has brought her church community to Nonnatus House to celebrate the holiday with Sister Monica Joan, who had been praying in the chapel alone while the other sisters were away. Joyous song pours out from Nonnatus House, and everyone joins in the celebration. There’s nothing like home, especially when it’s filled with family, friends, and love.