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West Asian Christmas


Dear friends and family ,


A few weeks ago, a friend asked about what it is like to celebrate Christmas here.  Perhaps you have also wondered about that!  If so, then please read on.


Merry Christmas!






What is it like to celebrate Christmas as a religious minority in West Asia?

Christians make up a little over 1% of the population of West Asia, while people of the majority religion make up about 97%.  Nevertheless, Christmas is a very happy time when there are mutual good feelings between the two religious groups.  Christians extend love to their M (People from the “M”ajority religion) neighbors and friends (by giving cakes, for example) and Ms wish their Christian friends a ‘Happy Christmas’ by visiting, bringing cakes and cards.  Some Ms (mostly those who have spent time in the West) actually celebrate Christmas, as the concept of Jesus’ birth is agreed upon by both groups, but their celebrations would center much more on the superficial aspects of Christmas rather than on the coming of God’s Son to save us.  All in all, Christians don’t feel anxious about celebrating Christmas as a minority, though there have been rare incidents when churches or Christian communities have been attacked during this time of celebration by extremist groups.



What does the local church do to celebrate Christmas?

Customs here are very different from those in the west, partly because of a very high value placed on visiting and the general lower income level.  But it’s still known as THE BIG DAY (which is the literal translation of the words for Christmas)


In preparing for Christmas, people here usually do not decorate until just a few days before Christmas.  The favorite decoration is to put a big, lit up star on the outside of their house.


Celebrating begins on Christmas Eve, when families go to one of the biggest services of the year at their church.  Just as in the west, this service brings out some of the less committed Christians to church, and the church sanctuaries are absolutely packed with everyone dressed in their new, fancy Christmas outfits. The service starts at about 10 p.m., and goes until about midnight.  Afterwards, families stay at church to visit with each other, or go to each other’s homes for more visiting, and this will last all night, until about 6 a.m. when people finally go to sleep!  


On Christmas Day, another service begins at 10 a.m., which has less attending than the night before.  However, this is an important service for babies in the Christian community as they are brought before the Lord and officially given their names.


Ladies spend much of Christmas Day making special food to eat at about 2:00 in the afternoon, while guests are coming and going all day.  On the church grounds, there are often special rides (including camel rides) for children.


Small gifts are given at Christmas, and all children must have a new outfit (boys or girls), a pretty girl’s dress or a boy’s suit to wear!  Adults, too, often have new clothes, though it’s not as crucial if they have something nice from another year.  Other gifts include candles, cake, cloth (for making new outfits), small toys, and Christmas money (perhaps equal to $1 US).  Christmas cards are very important to give at Christmastime. New widows should not give or receive anything at Christmas, as this would show a ‘happiness’ that is inappropriate for those in mourning.



Are there any special foods that are eaten? Special songs?

The big ‘celebration’ food in West Asia is spicy rice with chicken or beef or goat meat (mutton) mixed in.  This is served at Christmas, as well as spicy meat patties, a raw vegetable tray, raita (plain yogurt with fresh green chili peppers, coriander and mint mixed in), kheer (cream of wheat dessert with cardamom), sweet colorful rice, and sweet milky noodles.


Just like in the west, West Asian Christians have favorite songs they like to sing at Christmas time.  You sometimes hear “Jingle Bells” in English, or “We Three Kings” in the national language.  But there are also local songs that are in the national language and in the West Asian style, such as “Raja Yesu Aya” (King Jesus Came), which are sung with great gusto!


Christmas caroling is done here by church groups throughout the neighborhood (to Christian homes) between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., or sometimes by a young adult male dressed up as Santa who goes around with his friends and collects money to buy themselves a special breakfast in the morning!  (How do you like that? Santa TAKING instead of GIVING!)



What does the ex-pat community (YOU) do?

We have been surprised at how BUSY we are at Christmastime, even in this country where most people do not celebrate. Mostly we are not busy with shopping, but with programs and writing Christmas cards and baking and visiting. Carroll directs the Christmas choir at church each year, which is about West Asian, foreigners.  This is a wonderful opportunity for him to give something to the church and to use his God-given gifts in music.


We take some opportunities to invite Christian and non-Christian friends over during this time of year, so we can share some of our traditions with them (such as evening devotions around the advent candles, or cutting out snowflakes, or even just eating a western meal together.)  In our family, we like to keep gifts simple, so we each pick a name and then shop for that one person, so everyone gets one gift (though the grandparents and relatives fill in the rest!).


Instead of staying up all night Christmas Eve with our West Asian friends (which we did ONCE, and it was fun but very tiring!), we usually go to a service Christmas Eve with the International Church, at which I almost always get to play my violin, then we get home before midnight and go to bed.


We give gifts to each other on Christmas morning, and then stay at home and receive various guests who want to wish us a ‘Happy Christmas’, bringing a cake and a card.  We enjoy giving out small gifts to those who come, as well, and try to have things ready to eat and drink for our visit together.  This year, we will go to a church service on Christmas morning, at which Carroll will direct his choir and the service (which is in English) will be broadcast by radio throughout the region (as is done every year).


Each year, the office holds a Christmas party shortly before Christmas, and all of the office workers (from three different religions) come.  Usually we say a little about the meaning of Christmas, then we have some songs, and a gift swap before we have some party snacks together.


We decorate throughout our house with Christmas things, including a large artificial Christmas tree in the living room.  Our guests all LOVE that tree and just sit and look at it.  We also enjoy singing carols at home, and will sing some for our guests when they come.



What customs are brought from the west, and what are uniquely West Asian?

I would imagine that the cards, decorations, cakes, and gifts are all things that were brought from the west.  However, staying up all night and all of the visiting strikes us as very different, and would be more West Asian, I would guess.



How is the emotional atmosphere the same or different?

Christians celebrate Christmas with great happiness! It is definitely a festive time of year.  (I think there is some financial strain on people, too, as around the world, which can cause some stress.)   However, there are no commercials or Christmas programs on T.V., and there is almost no public display of Christmas (no decorations on the streets or in the stores).  One year a store selling Christmas trees was told to remove them from the front of the store and put them in a less noticeable place in the back!  Then again, you can buy decorations in some parts of the city.  For the most part, Christmas is only celebrated in homes and in churches. Twenty years ago, we are told, it was not like it is today.  There was a much more public presence of ‘Christmas’.  This year we have noticed a bit more public display than in years past, particularly in one of the fancy malls where the richer people shop.


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This page was last updated 08/09/10




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