The many faces of Christmas
Early Christians didn't observe Christmas until the fourth century, and Puritan settlers in America banned it for a time. It wasn't even a federal holiday until 1870. Celebrations evolved and blended many traditions - including pagan ones. What is Christmas like in other lands?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In his tiny village in southern India, Tom Palakudiyil would look forward to Christmas, but not because of the snow. Tom's village is in a tropical rain forest where it never snows. He also didn't look forward to getting or giving presents. Indian Christians in Tom's village don't give presents.
Christmas, for Tom, was an exciting time when Christian families would mark all 25 days of December, a time called "the Advent." Christians stopped eating meat and fish during Advent, so Tom looked forward to tasty Christmas meals, when he'd eat spicy meat, tangy fish, rice, vegetables, and sweets - as much as he wanted.
Tom is a Syrian Christian. Syrian Christians came from the Middle East to the Indian state of Kerala nearly 1,800 years ago. Although traditions in Tom's village have changed since Tom moved away almost 40 years ago (some Keralites now tell their children the Santa Claus myth), it's fair to say that the Syrian Christians there practice a very old form of Christianity.
For Christians in Kerala, Christmas is centered on the church. Children are in charge of decorating the church. Older children hang crepe paper streamers. Younger children make paper lanterns in the form of stars, a reminder of the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem.
Groups of grownups go house to house, singing carols. They are sung in the Keralite language of Malayalam. Most are lullabies, nursery songs about the baby Jesus.
Decades ago this was an especially magical time, Tom recalls. The village had no electricity, and you could watch the torches of the carolers move through the lush trees. Children giggled in anticipation as carolers approached.
The highlight was the midnight church service on Dec. 24. Parents would wake up groggy children, dress them in their best clothes, and take them to church to hear a sermon and sing Christmas songs. Many children would fall asleep - after all, it was midnight. But for Tom, the service, candles, and carols made a big impression.
- Scott Baldauf
As Ugandan teenager James Jumba sees it, there's only one thing that could ruin his Christmas: If his mom makes him and his eight siblings spend the day in the village she grew up in. "It's boring there," says the lanky kid in blue jeans and a T-shirt, echoing the near-universal teenage refrain. He's sprawled out in the living room of his parents' hilltop home in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, in east Africa. Surrounding him are a big TV in a wooden cabinet, a pair of two-foot-tall speakers for the stereo, and two other big couches for flopping on.
In the village, "There's no electricity, and no music, and no fun."