Put on your hideous sweater, make one of your children cry, learn to play the accordion, ready your party poppers, and generally sing, drink, and be merry.
I have had the good fortune of celebrating Christmas in a number of unique places around the world. Oddly for a life-long soldier, it was always in a place of my choosing. Blessed with a global perspective I realize everyone has a unique take on the festival. From the commercial glitz of the United States which has something for believers and shoppers alike, to Puerto Rico’s pure rum-infused religious musicality, to the cultural richness of a minority society in Asia, it’s clear people everywhere – and not just Christians – love Christmas.
I blinked at the neon in amused disbelief. It was the Virgin Mary in striking blue and yellow, a glowing slogan written in unintelligible Vietnamese in an arc over her head. The odd Vietnamese accent marks gave it the look of an exclamation. “VIRGIN MARY!” I turned back to look at the old French cathedral I was standing in. The contrast gave me a feeling of intellectual vertigo. The mass was over. I hadn’t understood a word but thanks to the all-powerful Vatican bureaucracy I didn’t need to. The Nicene Creed sounds the same no matter what language you say it in so that even in Saigon Catholics can all mindlessly recite how strongly we believe in one God, the father, the almighty…with a holy spirit…and a son…with a virgin mom. I moved on to the next neon lit shrine.
Contemplating the strangeness of the shrine, I became aware of a man angrily yelling at the curious worshippers. He was shepherding a growing crowd of bewildered people towards the front entrance in much the same way a teacher shoos children into a classroom. Some were laughing, others were not happy at all. One lady was in panic. The grumpy agitator was growing angrier and heading my way. Reluctant to abandon my careful observation of Vietnamese Catholicism and a bit confused as to what was happening, I briefly resisted the crazy guy and the human crush he was generating. That is, until I realized he was the Bishop that just said mass and he wanted us out. My parents and I were among the last to stumble out the door into the square, the priest slamming the iron gate behind us with a huff. We all looked at each other wondering what to do now.
I had brought my father to Vietnam as a Christmas gift. We wanted to visit all the places in which he had served during the war. Much had changed since the 1970s but one thing remained the same, the Communist Party of Vietnam still runs the country with an iron fist. Evidence of Communist control is on every street corner in Hanoi where a uniformed army officer stands guard with a baton at the ready to whack anyone that deviates from some nuance of scooter-riding etiquette. Whacking occurs often and, if the rider is uninjured, he receives a lecture and maybe a month in leg irons. Who knows?
While the baton guy is a fun Vietnamese tradition, our Christmas mass was serious business. There are two things Communists really dislike: large gatherings of non-Party members, and southern Catholicism that Hanoi associates with French and eventually US colonial chauvinism. Putting the two together undoubtedly requires Party approval and comes with a time limit. It was two minutes to midnight and the Bishop had just saved the church from being shut down for operating illegally after the end of its mandate. We shrugged it off and followed the crowd to Saigon city hall where we enjoyed a parade of tens of thousands of 20-somethings wearing Santa hats and all manner of costumes. It was strange and wonderful and fun and we stayed until very late enjoying the night with our 30,000 new friends.
Christmas in Malaysia is still largely considered a religious festival. The Muslim-majority southeast Asian nation is a true melting pot of cultures and Catholicism there is a feature of a few ethnic-Chinese Malaysians and the ten-percent Indian minority. With the exception of Sabah where many of the tribes were converted during the colonial scramble for Borneo, Christians are a minority of a minority as most Chinese are Taoist and most Indians Hindu. This gives the Malaysian Catholic community strong solidarity that occasionally brings them into conflict with the government which controls non-Muslim use of the word “Allah.” The government, always concerned that Malays (Muslim by law) may be confused by Christian use of the imported Arabic word for God, insists Catholics use the Malay word “Tuhan” instead. In my experience, the only Malays confused about this are those in the government when asked to explain the difference between Tuhan and Allah or between the Christian and Muslim God. (Hint: there is no difference.)
Christmas mass in the St. John’s Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur is truly a multi-cultural experience. One of the few Catholic churches in the city, it attracts the entire diverse Catholic community to its evening service. Faithful Chinese in common clothes are joined by Malaysian Indians in Saris, Filipinos in Barong Tagalog shirts, and expatriates in suits. But it was the Africans that caught my eye as the entire congregation thronged the altar after the service. Two young African men, a picture of health and virility, were praying more intensely than anyone I had ever seen. Their passion inspired a bit of envy I still don’t understand and I wondered what they were asking God for. Such was the power of their devotion that they even inspired admiration from a hard-core humanist like me. From that moment I understood how faith can compel men to perform extremes of love and hate for the glory of God.
After mass I found myself migrating to Bukit Bintang – Star Hill – for yet another Asian Christmas street party. There, in the commercial heart of Kuala Lumpur, I joined another 30,000 friends to celebrate at midnight. As in Saigon, the non-Christian community found Christmas a reason to party and in increasingly prosperous Malaysia, the mall was just the place for the middle classes to do it. Among the fancy coffee shops and street food carts, I sipped sparkling juice with multitudes of 20 year-old Muslims, Hindus, and Taoists singing Christmas carols and ushering in the day of Jesus’s birth with party poppers at the stroke of midnight. To my recollection, no one uttered the words Allah or Tuhan.
Christmas in Puerto Rico is a musical affair. There’s no need for a choir as the faithful bring their own musical instruments and plenty of talent to church. There are few things more energetic than a midnight mass in Puerto Rico which sounds and feels like a spontaneous salsa event. (Sorry Cuba, even if we accept your claim you invented Salsa or Merengue music, Puerto Ricans perfected it. Puente, Barretto, and Cheo were all Puerto Rican and there’s no such thing as El Gran Combo de Cuba. Deal with it.) Children feature prominently in the Christmas mass and are honored repeatedly by the priest who tells us that the birth of a child two millenia ago is what makes Christmas Eve the “Noche Buena!” (the Good Night).
Christmas truly lasts 12 days in Puerto Rico with the Feast of the Epiphany celebrated almost as happily as the Noche Buena. This was the night the three kings of the Orient supposedly reached the holy family in Bethlehem, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Puerto Rican children commemorate the event by leaving grass and water for the camels who faithfully stop by to drop off presents. The tradition predates Santa Claus and is a much-anticipated sequel to Christmas though I’d hate to see the disappointed face of a Puerto Rican child receiving a gift of myrrh.
In the meantime, Puerto Rican adults like to celebrate with 12 days of inviting themselves to their neighbor’s houses and drinking all their alcohol. They call this a “paranda” and it involves singing Christmas carols at your neighbor’s door in the middle of the night until they can’t stand it anymore and let you in. I have only participated in a paranda once and thankfully it was not in Puerto Rico where sadly, paranda-ing is becoming dangerous. Neighbors do not know each other as well as they used to and playing an accordion on a stranger’s porch in Santurce is more likely to earn one a shot in the face than a shot of “ponche” (Puerto Rican egg nog).
Gun violence aside, although Puerto Rico is often rated the “happiest place on Earth” – as demonstrated by the astonishingly high rate of teen pregnancy – the island paradise has a drug problem, an AIDS problem, a drinking problem, and apparently an economic problem. Puerto Ricans of even modest means no longer live in Puerto Rico, choosing instead to live in the United States and to only go back for the Noche Buena and heavily guarded parandas. At my one off-island paranda, we enjoyed great success thanks to the leadership of one of my mother’s friends who was a wizard with an accordion. There’s something about having real music that beats a bunch of drunks wailing away a capella. Our reward was plenty of ponche and Puerto Rican delicacies to last until the three kings came. I now refuse to paranda without a skilled accordionist; especially in Santurce. Naturally, this somewhat limits my opportunities.
Europe in the Lead
Christmas in Europe is less exotic but amazingly rich. Europeans have had several centuries to perfect their traditions and let’s face it, the American commercial version is nothing but mimicry of the best bits of European celebrations. Despite Madison Avenue’s best efforts, there is just no substitute for a Christmas market in a cave (Valkenburg), glühwein and escargot anywhere, or mass in a centuries-old gothic cathedral featuring a world-class choir or in a tiny hillside chapel where the bones of some saint are laid to rest. Europe more than any other place on Earth felt the power of the Catholic Church throughout the centuries and it is there that the totality of human effort to glorify God is on display. Feats of architecture, advances in warfare and weaponry, an entire age of exploration, and centuries of art and literature are all due to the religious impulses of Europeans. I challenge any atheist to deny the existence of God after sitting through a world-class performance of the Kyrie from Mozart’s Coronation Mass or of Schubert’s Ave Maria in a place like St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna.
Despite the relatively small size of European nations, their traditions are amazingly diverse. The Dutch like to roll out Sinterklaas and his very affable companion Zwarte Piet who scampers around shopping centers scaring the heck out of children and making all the American tourists uncomfortable. The Swedes sing songs and hurt themselves with the world’s nastiest grog (aquavit). The Russians drink vodka, go to church, and then drink more vodka. The Brits pit their children against one another in ruthless competition by forcing them to pull apart little gift packages. Only one child ends up with the gift and the other must resolve to work harder next year. Surely this is the root of British stoicism and the reason they colonized America. The Germans all transform into Bavarians and the Spanish into Arabs. The Italians sing about love and the French dazzle with classy lighting of their ancient towns that all used to be German. Contrast this with Americans whose traditions are limited to wearing ugly sweaters and watching the National Football League cynically make money with big games on the holy day.
In Defense of Tradition
Though all these traditions are focused on love and peace and celebration, they are seemingly under assault. Few can forget the scenes from Berlin of a truck plowing through a crowd of revellers at a Christmas market or of bombs ripping through churches in Indonesia in 2000. Despite this, you and I and millions of others around the world have enjoyed these festivities no matter what our religious affiliation, nationality, race, or gender and it’s up to us to preserve them. The best way to do that is to spread the Christmas cheer, attend the gatherings, give the gifts, and go to mass. Put on your hideous sweater, make one of your children cry, learn to play the accordion, paint your face black, listen to Mozart, ready your party poppers, and generally sing, drink, and be merry. There’s no wrong way to do it and you’re in good global company. Merry Christmas.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and a big fan of Christmas. He has never been shot at in Santurce.