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?

India

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.

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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

Uganda

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."

James looks forward to a Christmas Eve spent decorating the tree - and blasting carols on the stereo. Like most upper-middle-class families in this heavily Christian country, his family will get a fresh-cut tree from a roadside vendor and hang it with balloons, Christmas cards, and candies. Unlike most nights, when his mom makes him go to bed at 10, James will get to stay up until 2 watching TV. He's looking forward to "the Christian movies, like the one about Jesus Christ."

It's a far cry from Christmases his mom, Juliana Sentongo, recalls in her village. "Ah, they were beautiful, bee-yu-tiful," she says, sitting on another couch in a bright-green gomesi (a traditional wraparound dress). Days before Christmas, several families would slaughter pigs and share the meat with the village. Several cows were also slaughtered and shared. Christmas was often the only time villagers ate meat.

Many of Uganda's 23 million people still observe Christmas this way. But for Mrs. Sentongo, things have changed. She married a successful car importer and has joined the wealthier class. She notes with a hint of sadness that families in the capital prepare Christmas meals only for themselves - not for their neighbors, as in her village.

Some things haven't changed, though: On Christmas Day, she'll put on her finest gomesi and go to church with her family. They'll come back for a feast. "I'll even get two sodas that day," says James excitedly - compared to his usual one (or none). He will also get some new clothes, maybe even new shoes. Presents are not a big focus for his family at Christmas, despite their relative wealth. Rather, they will put the stereo outside and "dance until it gets dark," says James.

As for whether she'll make her kids go to the village, Sentongo sighs and says, "Nah, they wouldn't have much fun."

Over on the other couch, a smile creeps quietly onto James's face.

- Abraham McLaughlin

Scotland

Marie and James Scott and their daughters Rebecca (at college) and Naomi (15) celebrate Christmas in their rural home on the coast in a way that carries on some traditions. But to Marie and James, "the whole concept of Christmas has changed."

The couple are both from northern Scotland - Inverness. Both remember the Christmas days of their childhood as special and full of treats, but also as rather grim.

"Everything shut down," Marie says. Christmas "really did revolve around going to church." Some people even went to work on Christmas until the 1960s.

New Year's is a longstanding Scottish secular celebration. But the Protestant Calvinist tradition frowned on Christmas revelry as too "papist." Some didn't even send Christmas cards. There were presents, though. James recalls sleepless nights thinking about presents.

Today, Marie extends her "family" at Christmas with an open house - "open to anybody who wants to come," even the neighbor's dog. As for a tree, Marie has dug up a pine from the garden. It's in a pot outside where they can see the lights. (Naomi wanted a tree inside.)

Presents are still part of the Scotts' celebration. "Everyone likes getting presents," Naomi says. "Especially when it's something you really, really want!"

- Christopher Andreae

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