HOW IS CHRISTMAS CELEBRATED AROUND THE WORLD?
The world they say is a global village and it’s important not to get locked up in our own little corner and forget that we belong to a larger human family. From time to time, we need to think about other members of our human family and how they live their lives.
For most Christians in the West, the Christmas season is a festive occasion marked by meals with families, special church services, gift exchanges, and carolling. But did you know it is illegal to celebrate Christmas in places like Somalia or North Korea?
Also, in many parts of the world, many families are still living with the harsh reality of having no home of their own to live in, just like the Holy Family in Bethlehem, where there was no room at the inn and they were forced to spend the night in a stable. In other places, Christmas has been banned and the Christians there cannot celebrate freely. ACN took a tour to a number of Countries to find out how Christmas is celebrated and what unique practices they have in their countries.
In Syria, in the small town of Marmarita, a region known as the Valley of the Christians, there are still thousands of refugees from the war, people like the married couple Elias Ghattas and Lina Salloum, for whom Christmas is no longer the same as it was before. “There is no longer the same happiness and joy, and still less in families like our own, which are traumatised by the loss of our near and dear ones. We have a son who was called up in the army, and the biggest present for us would be for him to return home and not have to go away again anymore.”
MajdJallhoum is a young volunteer in the Saint Peter’s Centre, run by the Melkite Catholic Church in Marmarita, and she helps people like Elias and Lina. She recalls the first few Christmases after the outbreak of the war, when “It was impossible for us to celebrate at all. The idea of feasting together, toasting one another, decorating the home, while people around us were dying… It was just too painful for us.”
“When we arrived here in the Valley of the Christians, we could see that people were still celebrating Christmas with enthusiasm, decorating the streets with lights and putting up Christmas trees on the village squares. And so, together with my family, I went back to celebrating the Nativity of Jesus”, she continues. “It’s still not the same as the way we used to celebrate in Homs, where it was much more joyful, and where we had a great big Christmas tree in the central square in Old Homs and celebrated with fireworks. It was so pretty, all decorated with lights.”
The Honda family is one of those who will once again be celebrating Christmas in their own recently rebuilt home, thanks to help from Aid to the Church in Need.
“We’re going to celebrate Christmas with great joy in our own home at last”, says Evon Hajjar, mother and grandmother to the family. “We won’t be able to put up a Christmas tree, however, because they are extremely expensive and prices have gone through the roof, owing to the grave economic crisis we’re living through”, explains Marwan, her son. “But for us, it’s a wonderful gift just to be able to be together in our own home.”
The Honda family will be attending Midnight Mass in the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, which has also been rebuilt and inaugurated with the support of ACN. In the cathedral, Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Abdo Arbach extends his Christmas greetings to us:
“We wish for peace in Syria and in all your countries. I pray to God for peace throughout the world, and for the war to end here. I wish that all men would love one another because if we love one another, there will be peace. Happy Christmas and a happy New Year!”
Father Walid Iskandafy, the parish priest of Saint Peter’s Church in Marmarita and also the director of the Saint Peter’s Centre which helps the refugee families, describes the joyful anticipation among the refugees. “Some of them, who have been unable to celebrate the feast for years, are now being infected by the joy of those around them. All year round they are looking forward to these days.”
According to him, they celebrate Christmas in a similar way to other parts of Syria and the Middle East. “They put up the Christmas crib and Christmas tree in their homes, and the families all try to gather together to celebrate these days – parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents. They all go together to Midnight Mass and Christmas Day Mass, and they wish each other a happy Christmas, and also their friends and neighbours. They visit each other’s houses and share the typical Christmas sweets and pastries.”
In North Korea, Christianity is illegal and Christians must celebrate Christmas in complete secrecy in the woods with a handful of friends; in homes with candles and in whispers; or in the outhouses of prisons and labour camps.
Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un banned Christmas and instead told people to celebrate his grandmother, Kim Jong-suk, who was born on Christmas Eve in 1919.
North Korean refugee John Choi gives us some insight into what North Korea looks like in December: “’Christmas? What is that?’” he says. “That’s what the average North Korean would say if you were able to ask them about Christmas. Everyone in North Korea knows the birthdays of the three Kims (the leaders of North Korea since its beginnings)—but they do not know who Jesus Christ is or that Christmas is Jesus Christ’s birthday.
In Saudi Arabia, churches, crosses and Christian meetings of any kind are illegal throughout the country. There are no churches and even the wearing of any kind of religious symbol is forbidden. A Christmas tree or lights outside are unthinkable. For Christian households, Christmas must be celebrated in secret.
And for any Christian convert in a Muslim family (converting is illegal and punishable by death, imprisonment or lashes), they are often forced to hide their faith, acting like a Muslim who doesn’t celebrate Christmas—celebrating Jesus only silently in their hearts.
While the country’s laws “permit” Christians to celebrate privately, gatherings are still targeted by officials. In December 2015, rumours of increasing secret Christmas parties prompted state media to reinforce that celebrating Christmas was forbidden, suggesting that for Muslims even to greet non-Muslims with a Christmas message was basically “endorsing their faith.”
In Somalia, Christmas was banned in 2015—six years after the country adopted Sharia (Islamic law). Every year, there is an announcement reminding citizens that the celebration of Christmas is illegal.
In 2015, the government “warned” Somalians against the celebration of Christmas, saying it is only for Christians.
“This is a matter of faith. The Christmas holiday and its drum beatings have nothing to do with Islam,” Sheikh Mohamed Kheyrow, director of Somalia’s ministry of religion, said on state radio. He added that the ministry had sent letters to the police, national security intelligence and officials in the capital city of Mogadishu, instructing them to “prevent Christmas celebrations.”
In Tajikistan, no one publicly celebrates Christmas because it has been outlawed. A decree in 2015 by the education ministry in the former Soviet republic banned public displays of Christmas, particularly in schools and universities. That includes fireworks, festive meals and gift giving, as well as “the installation of a Christmas tree either living or artificial.”
In Brunei, an oil-rich country on the island of Borneo in southeast Asia, anyone caught illegally celebrating Christmas could face up to five years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Even something as simple as wearing a Santa hat will put you in jail. Unlike Tajikistan, the ban on Christmas comes directly from the strict Islamic regime.
The country’s population of 420,000 is 67 per cent Muslim, 13 per cent Buddhist and 10 per cent, Christian. Non-Muslims can privately celebrate Christmas in their homes but must first alert the authorities. Still, that caveat sends Christians a subtle message the government is watching.
“I’ve recently stripped all Christian decorations from my office walls to avoid suspicion from the authorities,” James, a church leader in Brunei, said after the decree was issued. “I’m not fearful, I’m being cautious.”
“It does take away some of the atmospheres… but we Christians stay focused on the joy that comes from God rather than external factors.”, he said.
Against all odds, Christians all over the world are celebrating Christmas; either in public, in secret or even in their hearts. They may not have the luxury of celebrating it like their counterparts around the world, but Christ is born and lives in the midst of his people, suffering with them and bringing hope to a world that longs for his saving message: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of goodwill.”