Christmas is a special time at World Relief. Students in our Education program celebrate the season with a potluck, singing, and dancing just before classes break for the holiday. It is a perfect opportunity for students to share about the unique Christmas and holiday traditions they have developed all around the world.
Through the ministry of World Relief, people born around the world and those born here in the U.S. are building friendships and sharing cherished traditions and life experiences. This sharing together can enrich all our lives. Here, Cheryce Berg, one of World Relief’s volunteers, reflects on how learning about unique Christmas traditions from Ukraine and Burma has enhanced her own experience of the Christmas season as she celebrates Jesus’ birth.
Much to my surprise, I find myself wishing I could spend a Christmas in Burma.
I would need to arrive on November 30 for Sweet December. I would want to be well rested from the long flight (because sleep is scarce during Sweet December), carrying bags of candy and small gifts (to be distributed widely), and geared up for feasting on water buffalo meat. My vocal cords would need to be warmed up for hours of carol singing and my bag packed with camping gear. But most importantly, my heart, soul, mind, and strength would need to be ready to fully worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ my Savior. For hours and hours. With entire congregations and their neighbors.
It would be nothing like my normal routine as November tips into December—that of gift shopping and tree-chopping, party hosting and mail posting.
I’m reflecting on these differences as I chat with World Relief’s ESL students in the basement of College Church. Some of the students I’m talking with are from Burma, of Chin and Karen ethnicity. The others are from Ukraine.
My new friends from Ukraine are all young women who look like they could be teenagers, but tell me they are married and have toddlers. In Ukraine, December 19th is St. Nicholas Day, and their toddlers will awake to discover presents under their pillows. I am concerned about gifts too large to fit under pillows, but they reassure me that those gifts may be placed next to their beds.
They skip right through December 24th and celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th, followed by Christmas Day January 7th. There are no presents under the pillows on this day. But there is lots of food: twelve dishes, one representing each of Jesus’ disciples. For the Greek Catholics, there is no meat or fat but rather fish, potatoes, and other items I don’t recognize.
And instead of just saying, “Merry Christmas”, one greets another with “Christ is Born”, to which the other responds, “Glory to Him!” (all in Ukrainian, of course). I delight in the reminder of why Christmas is merry in the very words of their greeting.
All three of these young women will celebrate Christmas this year here with their husbands’ families, while missing their own mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters back home. They bravely came here as young brides to escape conflict in Ukraine.
My heart aches for them as they wonder if and when they will see their own families again. Tears form in the eyes of one as she tells me she will call her mother on Christmas. I wish later that I would have given her a mother’s hug before she walked back to her classroom.
I next meet four refugees from Burma, one from the Karen culture and three from the Chin culture. They too have family members spread across the globe and will be missing home at Christmas.
These friends introduce to me “Sweet December.” I hear how on November 30th Burmese Christians of all cultures stay awake into the early morning of December 1st singing, worshipping, playing, and dancing. The youth group (which broadly includes anyone under the age of 35!) walks door-to-door singing Christmas carols. At midnight everyone chants, “Sweet December! Sweet December! Sweet December!” three times to welcome in the month of Jesus’ birth.
Early in the morning of December 25th they gather again at church. Some are in charge of killing a water buffalo to prepare for the mid-day feast. They open the day with a service of prayer and then eat a giant potluck meal of rice, goat, chicken, pork, beef, bananas, and oranges, plus the freshly roasted water buffalo meat. Banana leaves double as plates. After feasting, they spend hours just playing—children and grown-ups alike. I try to imagine my own church congregation just playing together and can’t.
After playing, they distribute presents to everyone—mostly just pieces of candy, but sometimes shirts, jackets, pants, notebooks, pens, Bibles, or even slippers. Then there is singing and the telling of the story of Jesus’ birth. The celebration continues all the way until midnight. In the warmer valley villages, the people camp around their tiny churches throughout the days surrounding Christmas to continue celebrating. The cooler mountain dwellers sleep at home but return to church early and stay late.
And what’s more: the celebration includes people from the entire village—not just those of the specific church! Everyone is welcome. Catholics, Baptists, and Buddhists join together in the festivities.
I ask how their celebration is different now that they live here, wondering where one finds a water buffalo to roast. “There is no room to play,” they lament.
A Chin pastor writes, “I imagined that ‘How wonderful the Christmas celebration in USA would be?’… But I found out that the actual Christmas Day was very personal without celebration and I was in shock. My first day of Christmas in USA was the most lonely day in my entire life… We had only a small candle light service on Christmas Eve. I enjoyed it but it was so quiet, short and simple. After the end of the service people went home themselves not staying long in the church… I found out that we, the Chin Christians, have no money to spend but have plenty of time to enjoy. Christians in United States have money but have no time to enjoy their life.”
As I prepare for Christmas this year, I ask myself, “How do I love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength? And who is my neighbor?” I think I know the answer. Now if I can just master Ukrainian or hunt down a water buffalo…