Christmas in West Malaysia
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.
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
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
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.
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?