Christmas in West Malaysia

1970s

Christmas is a public holiday. I don’t have to go to school. The street is quiet. I wonder how I might celebrate. It is suggested that I extend my piano practice time. Logical.

1980s

I’ve joined a church youth group. The young people go carolling in the evening. Cars, driven mostly by newly-licensed drivers, transport us around town. In gardens and on driveways, we sing carols: Away in a manger; O little town of Bethlehem; Silent night, holy night. One or two guitarists strum. We hold candles. Neighbours congregate. Our host invites us to a sumptuous spread. Apart from the usual fare – rice, curry chicken, fried mee hoon (rice vermicelli) – there’s Western food: spaghetti, beef casserole and garlic bread. Exotic.

Christmas in East Malaysia

Late 1990s

Newly married, I move to Kuching, East Malaysia. My husband and I attend a church comprised predominantly of the indigenous people of Sarawak. They tell me that in their village, people bring gifts to church on Christmas day, including live chickens. I think this is very much in line with the wise men who brought gifts of gold, incense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, born in a manger.

After a Christmas morning church service, we file out of the door into a stairwell. Our church is on the top storey of a shop-lot. We note the list of ‘open houses’ pinned to the noticeboard. Everyone is invited. We spend the rest of the day visiting, from open house to open house. Each family serves their best dishes, including pork wrapped in banana leaf and cooked in bamboo cylinders over an open fire.

Christmas in Australia

Early 2000s

We’ve just moved to Australia. My husband tells me that he has to buy a present for Chris somebody-or-other at work. At the next office function, I ask my husband, ‘Will Chris be there?’

‘Chris who?’ he asked, but I couldn’t recall the last name. The following year, one of our children come back from school with a note: bring a gift for Kris Kringle – aha! That was the last name I couldn’t recall. So I learn that Kris Kringle is an tradition of bringing presents (usually with some set monetary limit) and everybody at school or office exchanges presents.

In the lead-up to Christmas, friends and co-workers exchange gifts to show appreciation and enjoy celebratory meals together but the Christmas day lunch is usually a private family affair, preceded by opening presents early on Christmas morning, highly anticipated by children.

We tried explaining to our young children that it wasn’t part of our Christmas tradition to give each other presents: ‘Well, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. So he should get the presents, don’t you think?’

This is not easy for them to accept. It gets worse when people ask them, ‘And what did YOU get for Christmas?’ You see, in December, charity appeals often run along the lines of families so poor they cannot afford to give their children presents. Having no presents is practically short-hand for destitution.

Christmas baking: gingerbread men, angels, snowflakes and trees decorated with royal icing and m&ms
Our home-made gingerbread

2010s

The kids are teenagers. Still no presents, but some other practices are evolving into traditions. They bake gingerbread. We sing carols in the cathedral. We have a shared lunch on Christmas day at church, great for the many new arrivals who do not have extended family here. Some other lovely things to do around Adelaide during this time of the year are cherry picking during the day and driving around various neighbourhoods to admire Christmas lights at night.

Christmas around the world today

Traditions evolve. The person on the move finds this evolution necessary and adapts to each new environment. But essence of the celebration remains. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. There should be a gift for him. What would he like? After all, he has left the manger. Grown up. The powerful elite framed him on false charges because they feared this revolutionary Jesus who barracked for the oppressed, who ate with drunkards, loose women and tax-men, and who shone light in dark places.

Would love to hear of your Christmas traditions in the comments below. Have those traditions changed over time? Did you adapt your traditions when you moved?


    7 replies to "My evolving Asian and Oz Christmas traditions"

    • Melinda Seed

      Love these reflections May. My Anglo-Celtic forbears came to Australia between 5 and 2 generations ago. They brought with them the English Christmas traditions of the celebratory roast lunch. So we have roast turkey and ham with all the trimmings and hot plum pudding in the middle of an Australian summer day. Unlike many Aussies I treasure this tradition that has been handed down from my great-great Grandparents-and all the more for it reminding me of the fact that like 98% of Australians I’m a transplant from somewhere else.

      I love the idea of going house to house for Christmas food though. Perhaps we could share our turkey and potatoes roasted in duck fat with your pork cooked in a banana leaf over hot bamboo-yum or some gingerbread . Merry Christmas.

      • May Kuan Lim

        Sounds good Melinda. It’s hot all year round in Malaysia so the heat has never stopped me eating. Must confess, though, that the pork in banana leaf is an indigenous Sarawakian dish, not one I’ve cooked before. (I moved to Sarawak from West Malaysia after I got married.) My signature dish is whole roasted salmon, but it’s going to be a barramundi this year, because all the salmon at my local fish shop are too big. Merry Christmas to you too 🙂

    • Stephanie Rockliff

      I love your reflections May. The aspect I love most about our Christmas is the gathering of the extended family, nieces and nephews and now great nieces and nephews. We have a wonderful, and very loud time, catching up with each other.
      When I was growing up in the 70’s, my parents went visiting houses in the street on Christmas morning. My father would present each neighbour they visited with a gift of his home made wholewheat bread. It was legendary bread but that’s another whole story. Of course each house they called at offered a sherry. John and I moved into this house in 2000 and for sixteen years my dear neighbour who passed away just after last Christmas also visited on Christmas Day with treats from her kitchen.
      I too like to make things as gifts, either from the kitchen or my sewing machine. I think hand made makes it more special. For that reason I like to shop at Dulwiches for gifts all year round. Sadly Christmas has become frantic and stressful. May, you have given me pause for thought on this subject.. Perhaps it’s time to take over this tradition again and start visiting my neighbours with gifts. Have awonderful day tomorrow May with you lovely family. Steph

      • May Kuan Lim

        Thank you, Stephanie, for such wonderful descriptions of your Christmas traditions – past and present. How right you are that hand made is extra special, a combination of the gift of time and talent. (I so admire your skill on your sewing machine, each creation unique.) Lovely to hear from you and best wishes to you and your family during this special time, May

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