For anyone who has grown up in a culturally-Christian country, it can be a bizarre experience to be in a majority non-Christian country on December 25th. It is Christmas, but it isn’t. During one of my first years in Thailand, a Buddhist majority nation, I remember sitting through a school pep rally on Christmas Day at the government college where I was teaching English. It wasn’t about Christmas. It was just rah-rah-go-team-our-school-is-great. It was just a normal day for everyone. Students went to classes. Teachers taught. Everybody went to work. No mention of Christ, or even Santa Claus, although at the end of the pep rally parade there was an odd non-sequitur effigy of Uncle Sam hanging from gallows with IMF written on his chest. I didn’t quite understand what that had to do with the rest of the parade.
Meanwhile, in the United States, it would have been looking a lot like Christmas, or least the Western celebration of it. Carols. Tinsel. Presents. Big sales in the stores. Everyone asking what everyone else was doing for the holiday. Schools and businesses closed, and people traveling to see family. Snow, or at least images of snow. Regardless of whether people are committed Christians or just enjoying a secular holiday of family, food, and gifts, those are the kinds of things that many Westerners think of when they are getting in the “Christmas spirit” or say that it is beginning to look like Christmas.
As someone who grew up with all of those cultural trappings of Christmas, I missed them. When I became a Christian as a teenager, I realized that Christmas should be about Jesus more than about getting stuff. But all the stuff was still around, hence the annual struggle of Christians to try to remember (and remind others) that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”, as the cliché goes.
But being out of the U.S., and in a country where December 25th is not a public holiday, I was forced to think more seriously about what Christmas was. Since the culture at large was not going to do much for the holiday (aside from a “Big Gift Festival” Christmas-inspired sale at the local mall), it was up to me and my local church to decide what Christmas was about and how to celebrate. In many ways, it is a great experience to be someplace that doesn’t have all the cultural Christmas traditions because it forces you to think about what the holiday is really about.
My experience is not unique, however, and I imagine that many missionaries and other expats from Western countries (the former “Christendom”) have had similar experiences, not only today but in the past as well. While doing some research on Thai church history, I encountered the following Christmas reflection from Mary L. Cort, an American Presbyterian missionary who worked in Phetchaburi province, Thailand in the 1870s. Apparently, she missed snow but found many reasons to rejoice all the same during the Christmas season
MISSIONARY LIFE IN SIAM
by Mary L. Cort
Jan 4. 1875
A Tropical Climate.
The 25th of December was the strangest Christmas I ever spent in my life. There was no Wintry weather outside, no cold or snow, but sunshine, birds, and flowers. The natives were still busy with their rice harvest, and the trees were still gathering sweetness for their luscious fruits. The air was warm and balmy, and the fragrant hay filled the stalls for the cattle just as in the long ago when the Christ-child laid his sacred head among the sweet dry grasses, and became our blessed human Saviour. How glad I am that in ages past he was born in Bethlehem, and we have a Christmas Day to rejoice in—even one in which the loving Father gave to his children the "unspeakable gift.” O that Christ might be formed in the hearts of this people, and a glad Christmas dawn for darkened Siam! I have no doubt the sunshine of that olden time bathed with morning light the very hills that stand about me where I write. For was not Asia the birthplace of our Lord, and did they not see his star in the East? Who knoweth from whence the wise men journeyed, or whether the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh, were, taken from Persia, from India, or Siam? But this I do know, that once again, in the fulness of time there will be a bringing of gifts to the Saviour, and that then many from this land will cast their bright crowns at his feet!
excerpt from Mary L. Cort, "MISSIONARY LIFE IN SIAM". New York Evangelist (1830-1902), April 29, 1875, 46, 2.
photo credit: Kritmongkholrat