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.
CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS IN WEST ASIA
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 Majority 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 Gods
Son to save us. All in all, Christians dont 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
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 its still known
as THE BIG DAY (which is the literal translation of the words for
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
others 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 girls dress or a boys suit to
wear! Adults, too, often have new clothes, though its 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?
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 ½ West
Asian, ½ foreigners. This is a wonderful opportunity for him to
give something to the church and to use his God-given gifts in
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
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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