If ever the multi-culturalism of our faith manifests itself, it’s in the way our brothers and sisters around the world celebrate Christmas. Though common threads connect them all; each country has its own way of celebrating the birth of Christ. Let’s take a little tour of a dozen countries around the globe, guided by members of our DWC community.
First we head south of the border, down Mexico way. Sr. Socorro Lopez Rodriquez, SSpS says that people there begin to prepare for Christmas in November, but things really get going during "Posadas," which is celebrated the nine days before Christmas Day. Posadas means "Inn" in Spanish, and commemorates the struggle of Mary and Joseph to find a place to stay in Bethlehem. The nine days signify the nine months that Mary carried the baby Jesus in her womb.
Each night of Posadas features a procession—often featuring children dressed up as shepherds or angels—who go door to door among a group of houses selected for the night’s festivities. Outside each one, the gathering sings a song that asks for shelter. Those inside sing a song saying there is no room. Finally, at the last house they are allowed in and the night’s fun begins. The family offers special foods, sometimes sweets, or perhaps a hot, fruity drink called "ponche," and the children get to break a piñata. Posadas culminates on Christmas Eve at Midnight Mass, where the same songs are sung, followed by the Mass and a celebration and more good food and drink.
"For us the celebration is that we enjoy so much meeting other people," Sr. Soccoro said. "The meaning is when we have to visit a house, Joseph and Mary will be there and Jesus needs to live in our house."
Heading into the Caribbean, we stop in Jamaica, the home of DWC’s two lay students, Sashanna Scott and Andrew Phillips. People start thinking of Christmas there in November, but the celebration kicks into high gear during "Grand Market," which starts on Christmas Eve and runs into the wee hours of Christmas Day. Towns are shut down to traffic, and the shops stay open all night.
"During the day people shop for toys, clothes—it depends on what you are looking for, but whatever you are looking for you are sure to find it," Sashanna said. "You do a lot of walking. You listen to the music, enjoy good soup, the food, the corn, the jerk chicken, the jerk pork. You get a hair cut for work the next week. You enjoy everything."
Mass is celebrated in the evening or on Christmas Day. There’s no Midnight Mass because of Grand Market.
Seasonal treats are cake and a special drink called sorrel, which may contain some alcohol. These treats are shared with neighbors and friends.
"When you hear Christmas, you think cake, you think sorrel, you think Grand Market, especially Grand Market," Andrew said, "and how your feet hurt when you get home."
Crossing the Atlantic into Europe, we go to Poland, home of Fr. Bartlomiej (Bart) Jasilek, SVD, where festivities begin at dusk on Christmas Eve with the first star to be seen, commemorating the Star of Bethlehem, followed by a special feast with family and invited guests.
"It is tradition that there should be 12 different dishes, for 12 Apostles. We don’t use meat on this day. Usually we eat a lot of fish, different kinds of fish," Fr. Bart said. Under the table cloth or someplace around the table, they place straw or hay to signify the manger where Christ was born. Passages from the Christmas story in the Bible are read, and there is a breaking of bread, similar to a host, and each person gets a piece to eat. "We also put on one plate more, which is empty. This plate is for people who died from our family, for people who maybe poor and also symbol that we are waiting for Jesus Christ."
Christmas carols are sung during the course of the evening, and at some point children may run to a window at the sound of "Ho! Ho! Ho!," followed by a visit from St. Nick, and gifts may be exchanged. Priests say Mass at affiliate parishes and Midnight Mass is said at the main parish.
Christmas day is primarily for close family. It may involve a trip to a cemetery to remember those who have passed away. Children are finally allowed to eat treats that have decorated the Christmas tree and family members enjoy each other’s company.
"Christmas Day is very important, but for us, also important is Eve Day," Fr. Bart said.
We now travel south to Africa. Nicholas Osaigbovo, a freshman at DWC, is from Nigeria, where they celebrate with cultural dances and fireworks. People go to Mass on Christmas Eve, to Midnight Mass or on Christmas Day. Many of the decorations are similar to our Western traditions, such as Christmas trees and lights.
"On Christmas, besides visiting others, usually we trade food. You give your food, I give you my food," Nicholas said. Common foods are soup, rice or tomato stew. Those with the means may offer more than one food to others. "It’s a sign of celebration, to tell the person that we were able to reach another Christmas again. It’s a sign of gratitude to God."
Frater Koula Thierry, SVD is from Togo where the cities resemble those in the US around Christmas time, with Christmas trees, lights an other decorations and stores are stocked with gifts. But in the villages, like the one he grew up in, young boys form small groups earlier in the year and collectively save money for a party at Christmas.
On Christmas Eve people attend Midnight Mass where—as in most of the other cultures—they dramatize the birth of Christ.
"The amazing thing is that even the Moslems and those who believe in the traditional religion, they too attend this mass," Frt. Koula said. On Christmas Day, there is feasting and families prepare a local beer called tchouaoutou.
"Usually in my village for common meals you don’t have rice or meat. Only on Christmas Day do we have such good food. Usually pork or sometimes we have beef," he said. "We also may have fufu, which is pounded yam. Mostly we have it is on Christmas day, and it is delicious."
Heading east, we arrive in Uganda, home to sophomore Joseph Musisi, who says his homeland starts preparations for Christmas in October. From the 20th of December to New Year’s Day, the cities lose their hustle-and-bustle as many people return to their home villages to enjoy Christmas, which they call Sekukkulu.
"It is the most important holiday in Uganda. Our priority is about sharing, love, food and family," he said.
It is a time when people, especially the women, put on their very best traditional dresses, which results in a wonderful environment full of colors and patterns. Beginning on Christmas Eve, the air is filled with the smells of cooking, epitomized by the preparation of seasoned and smoked chicken called luwombo.
"They smoke banana leaves, then they put the whole chicken well seasoned, wrap it in banana leaves and they steam it with big, green bananas," he said. "After two or three hours they will mash the bananas, then put it back on the fire to steam it for at least two more hours. With the bananas and the chicken luwombo, Wow! It’s really delicious."
Cooking continues after Midnight Mass. On Christmas day, woven around the many Masses to accommodate so many people, families share and exchange food as their gifts.
"In the end, you find out you don’t eat the food you prepared because you give it to other people and other people give food to you," he said. "We celebrate really for a week, until New Years Day, for those who can afford it to take a week off."
Leaving the African continent, we go east, across the Arabian Sea. Dr. Mathew Kanjirathinkal, DWC Dean of Academic Affairs, was born in Kerala, a state located on the southwestern coast of India.
"If there is a religion in the world, it’s in India," he said of the nation which is predominantly Hindu.
"The government recognizes Christmas as a public holiday. People take the day off. It is respected. It’s a very tolerant society."
The highlight is going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and is a treat for children who get to stay up late.
"Often times you walk to the church with friends or family. It’s dark and it’s kind of a thrill to go to church in the middle of the night," he said. It is an elaborate Mass, which includes a lot of singing. The birth of Jesus is re-enacted. "They would have a little statue of the baby Jesus covered up on the altar. They would remove the cover, raise the statue up and ceremoniously walk with it over to a crib that has been built, very artistically, and lay it down in straw."
Everyone goes home in the wee hours. In the morning, they wake up to a special breakfast, which may contain meat, something they have abstained from during Advent. They don’t typically have meat often anyway, but on this morning, it is a treat.
"It’s a very joyful day. It’s a time for families to get together, a kind of family reunion, somewhat like Thanksgiving here," Mathew said. "More than anything else, it is religious and family oriented."
We now head north into China where Frater Jin Zhou Zhao, SVD says Christmas is the biggest celebration of the year for Catholics. Most of the people are farmers in the northern rural areas where he is from. During the winter, they have time to celebrate. Like the other countries we have visited, preparations for Christmas begin weeks ahead of time, but the main celebration is on Christmas Eve.
Most Catholics there do not have a church building to go to. The congregation is their church and is mobile as they gather in various public places. Sometimes adjoining neighbors will offer their backyards, creating a big garden. An altar and cross are set up for Mass. In the winter, it can get cold, but people bundle up in heavy coats to attend, not one, but three Masses—one in the evening, then Midnight Mass and one on Christmas morning.
"Most of the churches have a big party. There is a play to show the history of Christmas, then they have some traditional Chinese music and songs. The young girls may dance. The party lasts for three or more hours," he said. "Most of the Catholics stay until Midnight Mass, which is after the party, and then they go back home, maybe at 2am, and wait until the morning Mass."
Catholics who live in villages with no access to a priest often travel many miles to the larger parishes, like Frt. Jin’s, to attend Mass and these larger celebrations. Members of his congregations prepare food to feed these families.
Meanwhile, the signs of Christmas can be seen quite often in urban areas.
"For the non-believers in the cities, Christmas becomes a culture thing," he said. "You can see Christmas trees everywhere in the big cities. It’s because of economic reasons. Some young people like to go to church, enjoy the party, so at least it’s a way to experience it."
We now turn south to Thailand where Fr. Thanakorn Laohabtur says the Catholic schools are attended by Buddhists and Muslims as well as Catholics, and they all celebrate Christmas together.
"We have the Mass for all students, and we have activities like bingo and the students take food and eat together and share presents," he said.
Meanwhile, during Advent, the priests get a workout. Each night, a priest goes to a series of houses and sings a Christmas song, gathering a crowd as he goes. He may visit 10 to 30 houses. At the last house, the family prepares food for the gathering.
"If you have two or three priests, you can get to more houses," Fr. Thanakorn said. "The last time, my church had two priests; I go to 100 houses over Advent. Takes a long time."
On Christmas Eve, there is a celebration before Midnight Mass, but aside from the games and festivities, one of the big draws is confession.
"A lot of people. Every church, four or five hours for confession. I don’t know why," he said. "Inside the church they have a confession; outside the church we have activities on Christmas Eve."
Traveling east to Vietnam, sophomore Lam The Nguyen said the members of his family would gather every year with their church community for a big celebration after Midnight Mass.
"Everyone is invited. We have skits, and dances and performance, food and drink. We have a big stage prepared in our parish. Nice decorations. " he said. "After that, everyone can go home or just walk around the streets to see different churches where they hang lights, decorations and nativity scenes. You can walk around and take pictures. Christmas trees are popular along the street."
Like in China, often times families in remote villages travel many miles to attend Christmas Masses with their fellow Catholics in larger cities.
Traveling south, we arrive in Indonesia, a nation of many islands. Sr. Genobeba de Costa Amaral, SSpS says that preparations for Christmas begin three months earlier, as priests and sisters go to different parishes to meet with the people. The bishop selects a topic—it could be anything from politics and the economy to the dangers of human trafficking—and how it affects their lives.
"They need to think, so, when Jesus come, he will come and change our lives," she said. "Every year we have a different topic according to the world."
A month out, they start practicing Christmas songs in preparation for the big celebration. Then a week before Christmas, the priests hear confessions.
"Christmas is a big party," she said. "At night, after Mass, we need to walk around. We go to different neighbors or family, we greet them with, ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year.’ We say ‘sorry’ if we have a misunderstanding or we congratulate each other for being friends."
"On Christmas Day, people prepare cake and other special foods. It is a good time for us. It is a party," Sr. Geobeba said. "Cake in Indonesia, we don’t eat every day. For us it is special food."
Through each of these lands run common threads related to Christmas. Perhaps most prominent is the love and good fellowship that permeates each culture’s celebration of the birth of Christ. Love of family. Love of friends and neighbors.
Arriving back in Epworth, Fr. Joe McDermott, who worked for many years in the DWC Development Office, said that in years past, he would send out a letter to benefactors during the Christmas season, always with a message that he hoped would generate thought about the meaning of this blessed season.
"At Christmas, I think about relationships," he wrote in a letter in 1996. "I think of the relationship with Jesus to us and our relationship with him. I think of family relationships. Christmas is a good time to make new friends but also an opportunity to renew old ones."
One of his favorite messages was to encourage people to hold the spirit of Christmas throughout the year. To make his point in 1995, his Christmas letter was made up of installments he wrote during each of its four seasons.
"The spirit of Christmas is for all peoples of all times and of all climates," he said in his summer passage. "It can be near the shortest day of the year or the longest. We need Christmas in the summer just as we do in the winter; the spirit of Christmas must pervade all seasons."
That is a message worth spreading to every corner of the world.
Merry Christmas and God’s Blessing to you, always.