Christmas Eve in Germany
On Christmas Eve, shops close at 1 p.m., and quietness descends on the town. Our plastic Christmas tree, decorated since the beginning of December is unusual. In most families, a real tree will be put up today. During the day family members put gifts underneath. Church is at 5 p.m.
We have a simple evening meal. Each family has a traditional dish on Christmas Eve, often potato salad and sausages. We recently invited a Nigerian refugee mum with her daughter. We quickly adapt the menu to their taste, cook rice, find meat and vegetables in the freezer. We chat, listen to a Christmas song in their native tongue and hear the story of their flight through the Sahara desert. We feel raw – and very blessed. Tomorrow we’ll enjoy a more elaborate Christmas meal when the wider family gathers.
On Christmas Day 1814, Samuel Marsden, a Yorkshireman, stood on the shores of the Bay of Islands in New Zealand and announced, ‘Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people’. That’s how the Christian gospel was first introduced to the Maori people of New Zealand.
From then Kiwis have celebrated Christmas with traditions brought by European settlers and a Pacific influence. Christmas falls in the summer, so the days are long, sunny and warm. For most Kiwis, Christmas marks the start of the summer holidays, so churches find many regulars are away. Since moving here 10 years ago, we’ve realised how many European ideas of Christmas centre around light and darkness. Traditions like ‘Carols by Candlelight’, just don’t work in the height of summer!
For our family, the Christmas tree will be up (though the lights are pointless till late at night!) and carols will be sung. ‘In the bleak midwinter’ makes even less sense here! We’ll go to church in shorts and jandals (flip-flops) and have a BBQ Christmas lunch with Kiwi foods – salad, kumara, pavlova etc. We’ll try to source some turkey and sprouts, though it’s tricky. If the weather is good, we may head to the beach and play some cricket.
In a highly secular country, the reason for the season can easily be lost. One of our New Zealand carols reminds us how the Christmas story came to the country. It is called ‘Te Harinui’ (referring to the gospel as ‘The Big Happy’) and has become a family favourite.
Not on a snowy night
By star or candlelight
Nor by an angel band
There came to our dear land:
Glad tidings of great joy
But on a summer day
Within a quiet bay
The Maori people heard
The great and glorious word:
The people gathered round
Upon the grassy ground
And heard the preacher say
I bring to you this day:
Now in this blessed land
United heart and hand
We praise the glorious birth
And sing to all the earth:
My first Christmas in Ghana
How do you celebrate Christmas in a place where it has never been celebrated?
It is Christmas Eve, 1995 – my first Christmas in Ghana. A full moon, grass-covered huts, a circle of benches, a group of people. I’m sitting on a bench under a tree in a village in the north of Ghana. My husband and I are meeting with a small group of new believers who came to faith as a result of Bible stories told to those interested in staying on after literacy classes.
Among the Dagombas the language makes it clear that you do not ‘celebrate’ festivals – you ‘eat’ them. So food is provided, enough for anyone who wants to join. Then there are songs, dance and prayers, together with the Christmas story, of course.
I don’t really understand what is going on around me. I am still new to this country, and I only know a few words in the language. I have not much knowledge of the culture. But tonight we celebrate together the birth of our Saviour. And we eat together from one bowl – very peppery rice!
Christmas in Moldova
No dreaming of a white Christmas here… It will probably be white and very cold indeed!
Freedom for the gospel has only been here for 26 years, and during the 1990s there was a powerful spiritual awakening. Christmas has become an occasion for great gospel outreaches in concert halls and church buildings. These take place in the days leading up to Christmas, and on the 24th December there is a special outreach to many children at the churches.
24th December will find preparations for food and especially cake-making going on all day. In the evening, groups of Christians join to sing carols from house to house. They will visit the elderly, families, neighbours and their pastors. Moldovan singing is legendary, and it is wonderful to hear ancient and modern carols in Russian and Romanian being sung in the most beautiful harmonies. People living in blocks of flats will listen eagerly. This carol singing can go on for the most of the night, and the singers are presented with food wherever they go. Services follow on 25th and 26th December. Cards and presents do not figure very highly. Traditional food would be ‘sarmale’ – rice and meat and vegetables wrapped in cabbage.
Christmas in Namibia
Namibia has a mix of different cultures and traditions, so people celebrate in different ways. In the city where we lived, Christmas is the quietest time of year, as many city-dwellers leave — usually to celebrate Christmas in their home villages, or in the case of the Afrikaners, to visit family in South Africa or holiday at the coast.
We celebrate with the Germans. The children go to the old people’s home a week before Christmas. They read to the elderly people, give them gifts they made in school and sing carols. Leading up to Christmas, we bake with different groups of children and take plates of Christmas cookies to our neighbours. On the Sunday before Christmas, everyone in the community is invited to a service, after which we have a bring-and-share meal. The children all get a sewn cotton bag full of Christmas cookies.
On Christmas Eve, there’s a service in the late afternoon. After church, Susanne, the Namibian Oma (grandmother) our children adopted, would stop by our house and we’d exchange gifts. This is probably the one time in the year when most families would read the Christmas story together and then share gifts and have a big Christmas meal. Although Christmas in Namibia is at the height of summer, most German families still cook a roast.