Christmas candour

Christmas tree setup at the entrance to the hall at church last Sunday.

Christmas is a strange sort of season in Malaysia. Here are some reasons why.

It is a big deal commercially, even though only a tiny fragment of the population actually embraces the Christian religion. Go to any shopping mall in the Klang Valley, and you will see Christmas themed decorations EVERYWHERE. Not to mention the music playing in the background, and the sales going on in just about every store. It’s pretty much regarded like every other major religious/cultural festival in our country (the list for that includes stuff like Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Hari Raya Aidilfitri). I guess you could say merchants are taking advantage of Christmas and using it as a means to clear stock at the end of the year. Well. Whatever it is, it must be working because this repeats every year.

We get a public holiday for Christmas. I’m not complaining, of course. I certainly benefited from having a break from work/school over the years at this time of the year because we would have usually been busy preparing for Christmas service at church during the period leading up to Christmas. This involves lots of rehearsals for performances that we would stage at service itself, as well as things like producing fliers to hand out the community, decorating the church grounds, etc. But, like I said, only so few of us actually celebrate Christmas, while the rest just enjoy an extra holiday (oh, but we all love our public holidays over here hehe as they are so many). 

It is one of the few times that songs containing Christian references are played and aren’t outright banned or censored in the public domain. Malaysia is a Muslim majority nation, but has a secular government. But in many ways, legal enforcement has religious undertones. And Christianity is frequently seen as being at odds with Islam (even though Malaysian Christians have not in any way declared war with our fellow Malaysians of a different religion). This is both unfortunate and unfair, but it is a prevailing circumstance in our nation. So, it is surprising to note that songs like Mary’s Boy Child can be heard as you go about town doing your year end shopping.

Christmas themed decor and songs that are used in Malaysia retain a very Western influence. Well, I suppose that is to be expected, since most of our media influences originate from the West. But it still amuses me how year after year, we hear White Christmas and Frosty the Snowman being aired publicly. And Christmas decor typically includes attempts to recreate a snowy landscape using things like cotton balls. Oh and trees. Everyone who celebrates Christmas here puts up an artificial tree at home to hang decorations on. Hehe. We have no snow here! There isn’t even a Winter season (except when it comes to what the fashion labels market to us). We have only sun, sun, sun and a little more rain in December. No such Christmas trees grow in our climate. It’s so bizarre.

To most Malaysians, Christmas is thought of as a season of goodwill, shopping and gift giving, and a time to drink and be merry. Correct me if I’m wrong, however. But yeah, that’s pretty much it. Somewhere in all of this, there is a spattering of Christmas carols about the baby Jesus in a manger, but that is about it. Santa, reindeer and presents are the reigning ideology about Christmas.

So that is Christmas in Malaysia. A funny sort of thing. I do wonder how foreign visitors to our country feel about the entire manner in which we celebrate it here.

It would not be right to end this post without me talking about what Christmas means to me though. So, here goes. I will try.

I was born into a Christian family and have been immersed in its religious practices for as long as I can remember. Somewhere along the line, as I was growing up, I was given the chance to decide whether I would adopt the Christian way of life as my own. I responded by asking Jesus into my heart and dedicating my life to Him.

Fast forward a few decades later, and here I am, a married woman, a mother of one. Still a church goer, Bible believer, Jesus worshipper. I do admit that my spiritual side could do with a bit more nourishing nowadays than what it used to, but yeah. This is still who I am.

Enter the event of Christmas. It has always felt like a faraway concept. A baby boy, born in a manger, more than 2,000 years ago, in a stable somewhere in the distant plains of Bethlehem. A region and a nation that I have no insight into. A culture we only read about and discuss in Bible studies. Add to the mix all the secular Christmas practices in Malaysia that I mentioned above.

It’s not only at Christmas time, but just about all the time that being a Malaysian Christian makes you stand out (sometimes unfavourably) from others in society. Our community is made up of so many races, and a diverse set of cultural and religious practices so much so that inevitably, you’ll have to explain your beliefs at some point.

With all of these elements coming into play, Christmas, for me, in my private little world, is a time for reflection. It is a season where I will pause to consider once more what it was all about when Jesus came to Earth in the form of a fragile little baby long time ago. How it was an event full of intent. God bent on saving humanity from the utter destruction of sin. How He wanted to reach out to me. This woman who was born in the 80’s, who carves out a life in the tropics, who cannot comprehend Judaism and who has never experienced a snowy Christmas.

Christmas is also a time when I normally find myself surrounded by family and friends. Mostly, this would be my church community, plus my immediate family. It is a moment where I cease the humdrum routine that fills most of my days, to come aside and connect with those I mentioned. And to buy them lots of gifts too.

To be honest, till this day, I still feel that I don’t fully grasp the gravity of Christmas. I do try to, but I feel that I hardly give it the justice it deserves in my life. I always end up feeling unworthy. Sometimes, I also feel an inability to connect with the nativity scene and the overall chain of events. I know it all by heart, but perhaps I still do not know enough.

All I do know is that when the first Christmas took place, it was the beginnings of grace. For me and the rest of the world. And for that I am deeply thankful.

To quote the words of a song I learned while I was a child:

Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart
Somewhere deep inside you is where Christmas really starts
So give your heart to Jesus, you’ll discover when you do
That it’s Christmas
Really Christmas for you. 

Merry Christmas, everyone. May you know its true meaning this year.

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