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Christmas from West to East and In-between

WRITTEN BY: ERYN AUSTIN-BERGEN

At last, it’s Christmas in Canada! We’ve been waiting for weeks and weeks (some children have been waiting all year!). Festive decorations are strung in every neighbourhood and department store. Nostalgic tunes fill the space in our cars, homes, and churches. Holiday treats, brightly lit parties, ice skating, snowman making, tree cutting, gift buying, Advent calendar opening – all of it has led us to this moment. Christmas day.

And the joy is not confined to Canada, or North America, or even Europe. Christmas preparations and celebrations are ringing out across the globe. From Latin America to Asia to Africa. And it’s not all twinkling winter nights, Douglas Firs, and snowmen that make the season special.



GUATEMALA


In Guatemala, Christmas falls during the hottest time of year when the coffee is ripe and the sun shines large on the equator. But it turns out, you don’t need snow to enjoy the magic and mystery of Christmas.


The season kicks off on December 7th with “La Quema del Diablo” (The Burning of the Devil). People gather to light bonfires, sometimes even tossing in a homemade effigy of the devil! For Guatemalans, this is a symbolic way to rid themselves of all the bad things that have happened over the previous 11 months and prepare to embrace the joy and hope of a coming new year.


A more familiar Christmas tradition in Guatemala is the making of a Nacimiento, or Nativity scene. The entire family joins in the fun of planning and building a large nativity scene depicting the manger scene as well as friends and bits of contemporary life from their own community. It’s not unusual to find your local fruit vendor alongside a member of the Magi.



Nacimiento, the Nativity scene, are on display all over Guatemala during
the holiday season, often showcasing some local cultural styles.
Photo credit: Revuemag.com

While many families in Canada sip hot chocolate, mulled wine, or spiced apple cider Guatemalans are enjoying Ponche de Frutas, a sweet drink made by boiling apple, pear, pineapple, and papaya with sugar, raisins, and cinnamon.



A Guatemalan Christmas feast is not complete without tamales (centre) and Ponche de Frutas (right).
Photo credit: TravelSavvy.com 

Christmas Eve  marks the largest feast of the season. Instead of turkey there are delicious tamales made of corn, rice, or potatoes (depending on the region) and stuffed with meat, olives, prunes, peppers, chicken or pork, doused in sauce, and wrapped in banana leaves. At midnight, the party moves outside to light up the night sky with fireworks and firecrackers. This show is followed by opening presents and sometimes enjoying a second feast! Families and friends will stay up until three or four in the morning, celebrating, which makes Christmas day a pretty quiet affair.


CAMBODIA


Across the world in Cambodia, a very different scene is taking shape. While Christianity came to Cambodia with western colonizers in the 1800s, it was almost completely wiped out (along with Buddhism and any form of religion) during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It was only in 1993 that the Cambodian government moved to protect freedom of religion.


As a result, most Cambodians know Christmas as a secular season marked by festive decorations, shopping discounts, gift-giving, and parties – but not necessarily Jesus. Christmas decorations appear in coffee shops, bookstores, supermarkets, and businesses. Hotels and restaurants especially capitalize on the feel-good elements of Western Christmas culture to appeal to the many foreigners now living in the capital. While not an official holiday for Cambodians, Christmas is a good excuse to hang some shiny garland, earn a bit of extra money, throw a party, and enjoy a few more beers. And Cambodians love to party.


Children in an FH partner community reenact the Christmas story 


For Christians in Cambodia, the season holds a deeper meaning. They gather with family, friends, and neighbours to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They go to church and feast at home – chicken, rice, drinks, and bread. Church gatherings have prayers and Bible readings, and often include pageants where children perform Christmas songs and youth act out the story of Jesus.  In addition to worship services, some churches also host parties. Families give gifts like books, clothes, toys, and chocolates to children.



ETHIOPIA


While Christmas is a relatively new and secular phenomenon in Cambodia, over on the eastern coast of Africa, Ethiopia has been celebrating Christmas since the birth of the church.


Ethiopia is one of the most ancient cradles of Christianity. The Orthodox Church there traces their roots all the way back to the Apostle Philip who baptized an Ethiopian Eunuch traveling through Israel shortly after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 8).


Because the church in Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar, Christmas day falls on January 7th, not December 25th. The celebration is called Ye Ganna Bal (the Birth of Christ). While gift giving doesn’t dominate Christmas in Ethiopia as it does in Canada there are still special traditions, food, games, and fun to be had. All the children get a brand new set of clothes. Everyone takes time to pause from daily labour to indulge in elaborate church services, family gatherings, rich food, and festive games.


But before the celebrations can begin, a 43-day Advent is observed. Rather than being marked by chocolate calendars, Advent in Ethiopia is marked by a fast called Tsome Nebiyat (the Fast of the Prophets). People generally eat only one vegan meal a day, fasting from meat, dairy, eggs, and wine for the weeks before Christmas. This makes the Ganna celebrations even more special.


When Christmas Eve finally arrives, people gather in churches to sing, light candles, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Church-goers dress in crisp white linen gowns while ministers don brightly coloured robes trimmed in gold or silver. Services often last deep into the night, sometimes until dawn!





Christmas breakfast begins with a soothing flaxseed juice – the perfect remedy for a stomach that has been fasting. Friends and relatives gather for a mid-day feast – grilled mutton ribs and tej (honey wine). Doro Wot, a famously spicy chicken stew with vegetables and sometimes eggs, is also part of the feast, scooped up by freshly made injera bread. And of course, no Ethiopian holiday would be complete without a cup of strong Ethiopian coffee.


Tej, honey wine (Courtesy of Jenny Miller)

A lively sport called Ganna serves as the day’s entertainment. Men and boys gather round for raucous matches played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball (sort of like hockey!). According to legend, when the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, they broke into a spontaneous and joyful game of Ganna, using their staffs as the “hockey” sticks.


A community playing Genna together. 



In every corner of the world, Christmas traditions have developed inside culture. From the freshly cut Douglas Firs in Canada to burning the devil in Guatemala to making a few extra bucks in Cambodia to worshiping all night long in Ethiopia, human culture has made its mark. But the one thing that reaches across all cherished customs is the first reason we celebrate – the birth of Jesus. The hope of a Saviour. The revelation of God with us – meeting us in our family gatherings, our fireworks, our garland, and even our spicy chicken stew.

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Food for the Hungry: Christmas from West to East and In-between
Christmas from West to East and In-between
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Food for the Hungry
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