Serving Greater Vancouver & the Fraser Valley

A cultured Christmas

Photo Credit: Northern Ireland Tourism Board


A Nagas Christmas in Northeastern India (Tribal Style)
Rathiulung Elias Khangchien sees Christmas as the most celebrated event among the tribes of north-east India. The much-anticipated festival is observed in grand manner with family members gathering together from near and far. The time focuses more on the larger community than on just the family who have the rest of the year to enjoy each other. It is not unusual for family members to stop seeing each other because of all that is happening.

Churches plan days of events throughout the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year – sometimes for up to ten days with back-to-back events. A women’s day and a Sunday School say will each have their own themes as part of the program and the community is an integral part of it all. Gatherings can happen three times a day for the entire ten days. Community meals are served to everyone who attends from a distance but most families who are near eat at home before returning to the next gathering.

In Tamenglong (a town in Manipur where Rathiulung was born) the Christmas service is marked with singing, dancing, sermons, story-telling and other social events such as stand-up comedy plus song and dance presentations. Among the Zeliangrong Nagas in Manipur, a collection of indigenous Christian songs (lujam) are presented accompanied by dancing and indigenous musical instruments.

In the months before Christmas, the choirs practice, the wood is chopped in preparation for cooking fires, churches are decorated and special festival halls are constructed to accommodate the festivities. No one is idle at home, as this is considered anti-social.

Even in India, the Santa Claus figure is put on the Christmas tree and sometimes a dressed-up Santa distributes candies for the children. Fires are essential to huddle around due to the bitter cold. Often times the power cuts out and the people have to rely on their torches to find their way home.

Khangchien values the community singing most. The singing and dancing keep everyone up late. Hot tea is served in unlimited supply and the youth are usually charged with keeping the teapots full. The youth run the logistics and the labour needs of all the Christmas celebrations.
– Jack Taylor


Christmas in Korea
Milton Kim’s childhood Christmases in Korea were centered around three generations of family being together, including his maternal grandmother, her children, and all the grandchildren. They had a month-long school break, so would get together a few days before Christmas and stay until at least New Year’s. The highlight was eating together.

“That’s the thing about Koreans,” he says. “They get together to eat all the time. . . There’s no Christmas dinner. . . Every meal was special. Every meal was celebrated. You get together as a family – you’re eating. It’s a huge event. Every dinner would be massive.”

At that time, Kim says, before he came to Canada as a preteen in the early 1970s, Koreans ate many traditional foods on special occasions.

“One signature food,” he says, “maybe the Korean version of the turkey, was dumpling soup. It’s called duk guk. And that (the dumplings) was representative of the Christmas family.”
“Christmas means duk guk to me,” he says.

His family enjoyed other traditional foods too: Korean rice and kimchi, of course, along with bulgogi, fish, various soups, green onion pancakes, seafood pancakes, Korean sushi, and bibimbop.

Chestnuts were another treat, not roasted but steamed. “It was a very unique flavor,” he says. “I remember it well.”

They had a real Christmas tree at home, and they decorated their house, but without Christmas lights.

Gift-giving was within the family and was more needs-based than it is here in Canada,” he says. “It was not materialistic.”

Korean Christians had special church services leading up to Christmas, he says, and they attended church all day on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day. The Christmas story was told, and perhaps simply performed, but there weren’t any big presentations. Oddly, he says, Santa Claus was also part of the church celebrations. And whenever Koreans had a church service, they ate together at the church.

Koreans place a high value on music, especially classical music so Christmas included a lot of music, at church and elsewhere. His family tradition included Christmas songs that were Christian, secular, and classical in nature, and he remembers his mother taking him to hear Handel’s Messiah every year. For Koreans, the most important part of Christmas is being together.

“Passionate bunch,” he says. “Always eating.”
– Laureen F. Guenther


Ireland: Saint Stephen’s Day and Little Christmas
You can’t miss the lively music of the Irish fiddle and melodic harp with Christmas approaching. Christmas is Ireland’s largest celebration, and it traditionally starts on December 8.
“Ireland is still very much a Christian country,” says Consul General Frank Flood, the first consul general of Ireland in Vancouver, BC.

“Christmas is essentially our Thanksgiving. Everybody makes an effort to be home. The Irish love Christmas. It’s a time to connect with family and friends, to mend fences, to forgive and bring people together in the true spirit of Christmas.”

“Some people go to mass on Christmas Eve. Our main meal is on Christmas Day. Ham is traditionally the big dinner, but it’s usually turkey now. December 26 is Saint Stephen’s Day. People get out with their families to do lots of sports and exercises after overindulging on Christmas Day.”

“It’s also Wren Day, a tradition still practised in rural areas,” says Flood, “Wren Boys would be entertainers dressed up in old clothes resembling scarecrows. They visit homes, perform a short gig, have some fun, food and drink, and call on the next house. Celtic folklore considered the wren, a little bird, a symbol of the past year.”

Making a comeback is Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas (Nollaig na mBan in Gaelic) tradition on January 6. It’s a day for women to relax, gather and have their own party after a hectic Christmas preparation period, while men assume household chores and mind the kids, explains Flood.
– Agnes Chung


First Nations: We’re all going to Kookum
“Kookum (grandmother in Cree) is going to cook a big feast around Christmas. I hear that a lot across Canada; there’s some similarities whether it’s in northern Manitoba or southern Alberta,” says cultural worker Curtis Ahenakew – at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Society Centre – sharing his most memorable Christmas.

With his mother’s introduction to the church, he celebrated Christmas growing up in Saskatchewan.. He remembers being around lots of family while visiting Kookum, the family matriarch. Kookum made delicious pan fried deer meat with bannock, turkey, stuffing and mashed or boiled potatoes.

“Prior to Christian contact, was no concept of Christmas. It was just the Winter Solstice. There was dance and ceremony around the winter season, potlatch with family gathering and gift-giving – which is pretty much all year round.” says Ahenakew.

“The tradition of gift-giving and family gathering got adapted, resulting in a blend of indigenous and Christmas traditions when some of the First Nations communities became Christians, especially those living on reserves close to residential schools,” he adds.

“Some communities have fully embraced Christmas celebrations as part of their culture now,” says Ahenakew, ”some really, really love it”, but there are those who snub Santa Claus and the commercialization.

Traditional gifts given at winter solstice potlatch differ, depending on the First Nations group and clan hierarchy. Iroquoian First Nations’ gifts include eagle feathers, ceremonial songs and sharing of dreams, whereas Cree gifts can be clothing, ribbon skirts, food (such as deer, moose or buffalo meat) and sometimes, names.
– Agnes Chung


Christmas in Singapore
Into the melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnic groups the sociocultural tapestry of Singapore has woven in a large influx of other newcomers. The cosmopolitan aura of multi-culturalism flows across holidays in a lively mix of what each group brings to the table. The island hosts the celebrations of many ethnic groups and enjoys them as holidays. Among the ten embraced are New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year, Good Friday, Labour Day, Vesak Day, National Day, Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali, Hari Raya Haji and Christmas Day.

Christmas in Singapore welcomes glitter and glow to its shopping centers. Artificial Christmas trees pop up in almost all public spaces – fully adorned. Nativity scenes are on display among other lavish decorations. Since the 1980’s the commercial centers have sparkled up in an attempt to attract tourists and other celebrants. Orchard Road has become a central focus for this. The encouragement of gift-giving is fully embraced but in Singapore it is unusual for the receiver to open the gift in front of the giver.

Charities are noticeably active in this season. The Salvation Army’s Christmas Kettle is visible in collecting donations and audible with its ringing bells. Bells are sometimes associated with the thought of driving evil spirits away and bringing about rejoicing and good will. Santa suits are common. Sending good wishes through Christmas cards is common. Candles, symbolizing Jesus as the light of the world, also appear in Christian homes.

Traditional foods include smoked ham, roast turkey, plum pudding with brandy sauce and mince pies. Turkey in Singapore can end up with a strong dose of Asian seasonings and herbs like ginger and chili. The Christmas in the Tropics extravaganza unfolds from the end of November for seven weeks to the New Year. Celebratory arches line the main street and highlight special water features and sets designed to capture perfect pictures. Choral groups, dancers, musicians, floats and other festivities are designed to dazzle.
Midnight mass, family visits and a spirit of good will wrap-around the festivities.
– Jack Taylor

Author: Steve Almond

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