Thursday, 23 December 2010
The Indonesian term for Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of Isa Almasih (Jesus Christ) on December 25, is Hari Natal.1) Indonesians do not have specific traditions associated with Christmas in the way that Western countries do; every family builds its own Christmas traditions. Seen as an imported religious holiday, Christmas in Indonesia borrows western traditions such as Christmas parties and exchanging Christmas gifts. As children, I was also familiar with the story of Santa Claus and his presents under the Christmas tree. Recently, youngsters belonging to Christmas carol groups have begun to visit homes in their neighborhoods to raise charity funds.
The most important aspect of Christmas for Christians in Indonesia is going to church, either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas day. Almost all churches in Indonesia have more visitors than usual on that specific day. The story of the birth of Christ amongst the poor, after His parents were rejected at inns, is repeated in churches, reminding us to care more about the poor around us. For some years now, my children have taken Christmas gifts to the church. They put them under the Christmas tree in the church (or in front of a model of the Bethlehem cave if there isn’t a Christmas tree), or give them to those in charge at the gate to be collected for orphans or other children who need those presents. It is suggested that we give something useful for education, so we may give school bags, books, pens, pencils, etc.
As Catholics, my parents had an Advent candle tradition during the four weeks leading up to Christmas. While waiting for Christmas, we lit one new candle every week saying a special prayer. We had four candles alight by Christmas. We also had our own special Christmas gift tradition. The presents from Santa would be under the Christmas tree during Advent. They appeared one by one every time we children did our good deeds. When I was a little girl I used to carefully count my presents under the Christmas tree. I would find one was missing when I did something bad. Children nowadays have more questions about Santa Claus and I do not continue this tradition in my house now. The Christmas tree with lots of presents is in their grandparents’ house.
We did not hold parties during Advent, so we celebrated Christmas only after we had our Christmas mass (a special church service). My family doesn’t have a special Christmas Eve dinner, but we have a special family lunch on Christmas Day. It is kind of a Lebaran (Eid Mubarak) gathering too. The extended family will come and have a family reunion. My parents’ friends and neighbors used to come to greet them late in the afternoon or in the evening of Christmas Day. During Lebaran, it is the other way around: my parents (sometimes with children) visit them.
Some Indonesians open their presents on Boxing Day (the first day after Christmas day). However, while I was growing up, presents were kept under the tree until the New Year in my family. The focus of the present opening is the children. The adults (especially the unmaried uncles and aunts) enjoy seeing the enthusiasm and surprise in the children’s expressions when they open their presents. Now that my brothers and I are grown up we have our different New Years activities. Sometimes one of us is out of town. So, we open our presents on Christmas Day when we can all gather together. We used to put some gifts for the staff who help us at home under the tree too. It was to show that they were also part of the family, and that we cared about them. But now we just give the gifts to them privately, as not all our helpers are Christians. Recently some of our Moslem friends are reluctant to say “Merry Christmas” in case they are seen to be celebrating Christmas. So we considered it wiser not to include our gifts for those helpers under the Christmas tree.
For the Christmas lunch my family have some of our traditional food such as kanre minyak (greasy rice), nasi campur, and coto Makassar. One of my brothers is dating a girl from Palembang, so sometimes we also have pempek Palembang that comes directly from her hometown. We usually have this family lunch at my parents’ home. When my grandmother was still alive, and after she became a Catholic, we used to visit her on Christmas Day too. Occasionally we had our Christmas lunch at my aunt’s home when grandma was staying there. My cousins, whose parents are living in Makassar, also come to my parent’s house. We call their families by phone to wish them “Merry Christmas” too. My aunt, whose daughters are married to foreigners, used Skype for her Christmas gathering.
Christmas traditions in families also depend on ethnic backgrounds. Those from Menado or the (Christian) Batak would perhaps be more familiar with having a Christmas party after the Christmas Eve Mass. But the essence is still the same throughout the world - it’s time for a family gathering.
1)Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia IV (KBBI IV), the Indonesian language dictionary, stated that “natal” has two meanings: the birth of somebody and the birth of Isa Almasih (Jesus Christ). The word “natal” is accepted as an Indonesian word without the need to mention that it came from the Latin language.
Note: This article was published for the Indonesian Heritage Society Newsletter November - December 2009. I put it here for all friends and family who are longing for their families. May the spirit of Christmas bring joy in our heart...God bless us!
Picture was taken in 2007 when my grandma was still with us, her last Christmas before she went back to God.