I’ve spent several Christmas holidays living and traveling in other countries. Although everywhere I’ve lived has at least a small population of Christians, the majority religion in Indonesia is Islam and in Laos it’s Buddhism. So this will not be an article about the interesting Christmas ornaments, songs, foods and other traditions in some other country because I don’t have the experience to write about that. Instead, I’ll focus on the ways that I and other friends found to celebrate Christmas as a minority, and on how Christmas has made an appearance in at least a small way in unexpected corners of the globe.
The house where I lived in Indonesia is home to a succession of foreign teachers from various countries and there was a small Christmas tree tucked in a drawer with a little selection of ornaments. I never learned who’d left it there but each year we teachers would set it up. One year when one of my colleagues was Jewish, we also made a Channukah menorah out of 8 tea lights for our little holiday gathering.
My English language school in Indonesia would always have a Christmas tree in the lobby, and holiday activities were allowed in the classroom as part of cultural and vocabulary lessons. Probably about 5-10% of the students were Christian and occasionally I’d have a student object to participating in a Christmas or other Christian holiday craft activity – I’d always allow them to draw or write something that was acceptable to them instead. The students always knew of Christmas but they’d never heard of Channukah.
The teachers and staff had a little party and “Secret Santa” gift exchange amongst themselves, too. Only once in 4 years did a local teacher not want to participate, and she changed her mind after she found out that all of her colleagues were doing it. I was surprised and pleased at how open they were to sharing in the Christmas holiday traditions, and how welcoming they were for us to participate in their holidays like Ramadan and Idul Adha. Part of our Christmas celebration included a fancy dish called “Tumpeng” which featured a cone of yellow rice surrounded by various goodies: sticky crumbled tempeh , vegetables with shredded coconut, fried chicken or fish, and more.
Of course, Christmas spent in tropical and subtropical places is never snowy. And most evergreen trees don’t grow in such warm climates. So the decorations that I saw included artificial trees, palm trees covered in lights, and crooked evergreen branches stuck into pails of sand. Probably the most creative one that I remember was on a holiday trip to Cambodia – walking back to my beach bungalow on Christmas eve, I saw a sand “snowman” on the beach complete with shells for eyes, mouth and buttons.
In Laos, my students were very eager to learn about other countries and especially about America. We had a holiday lesson with little gifts for all and many of these very poor kids had never seen a gift wrapped in shiny paper, much less received one. It was really touching to see how excited and grateful they were for their packet of candies and trinkets. I wished it could have been something larger. One class had read about Flashmobs and staged a “spontaneous” carol during another class’ lesson (they popped on Santa hats then stood up and sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”) which was wonderful fun. And I was very touched that a few students brought a gift for me. On Christmas day, the staff went out for dinner together at a local Indian restaurant.
However you celebrate Christmas (or Channukah, Diwali, or any other winter holiday), I hope it’s happy!