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Christmas in a communal culture vs. a family-oriented Christmas

Christmas here in Manokwari is primarily a community centered celebration and in America it’s a family centered celebration. That’s a big difference in American vs. Indonesian culture in general. The celebration of Christmas begins here weeks before hand with Christmas services. Everyone has a Christmas service. In the US everyone throws a Christmas party, but here, in a culture that highly values ceremony, everyone had a Christmas service. A friend calls it the “season of a thousand invitations” because we get so many invitations to so many services – for weeks. We’re from an informal culture, so we don’t naturally get excited about going to a ceremony if it’s not our actual community (school, church), but we know attending is a sign of friendship and respect.

In the US the traditions are centered in the home. Cookies, stockings, opening presents, reading the Christmas story together, a Christmas feast, Christmas movies, watching a game together. All in the home. Our informal US culture was becoming even more informal and family based, as our church in Chicago decided not to even hold a Christmas service so that everyone would take full advantage of being present with their families over the season. In contrast, most things here are gatherings that are out with your broader community. Our church had six various services in the week of Christmas (not different times for one service, six separate kids of services). It sounds exhausting to us, but here it is not a distraction from the family time, because there are very few family-only events and traditions that are happening.

When Christmas services are over its visiting time. While in the US we go visit our family, in this town everyone goes around visiting the homes of people you are close to or work with, as well as extended family. This whole thing is kind of incomprehensible to us, because we’re from a culture where everything simply must be scheduled! The closest thing we come to it is like trick or treating on Halloween. You can go to homes and pop in and say hi, and you are offered cookies and drinks, and apparently (just learning this!) kids are often given goodies to take with them, and some kids bring bags and just fill them up. This goes on all of Christmas day and the day after.

I think both cultures and traditions are fun and both can be imbued with meaning and remind of the birth of the Savior Jesus. There is beauty in traditions and the gathering of community and of family. Both can also be meaningless as well – empty religious ceremony or empty materialism.

So. The challenge for us is combining the American culture with the Indonesian one. We want to have home and family traditions that are carried on from our own childhoods, that are special for our family, and are private. That’s just the value instilled in us from Western cultures. In the future we will probably do more visiting and being visited, as we grow more comfortable with it and don’t have an infant anymore. This year we had our teammates over for Christmas dinner and while we were all eating, some friends walked right in to do a Christmas visit! So we managed to do two kinds of hosting/visiting at one time, but the challenge will be figuring out how to combine the two cultures for future holidays.

Regardless, it’s fun to see the difference between this Christmas and last one. Last year we’d just been in our church a couple of months and we really had very little what was going on over Christmas. This year we feel much more connected to our church, Isaac preached the Christmas sermon, my kids played with the kids, we chatted with friends, and we enjoyed the various Christmas parties. I managed to host an American/British style Christmas meal with our teammates as well, and I’m getting better at making roasts and rolls and timing everything correctly. Progress both culturally and as a hostess!

All in all, we had a fun Christmas as a family, we feel like we're more integrated in the culture than we were a year ago, and we see potential for more growth last year.

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