by Sharon Tan
“Tell me how to celebrate Christmas,” Ruth said. She had been a believer for only a few months, so this would be her very first Christmas and she was eager to celebrate her first Christian festival. Would she need to get a tree? Where could she get the special food that was not available where she lived? We had told her the Christmas story from the Bible, but she could see that the modern Christmas portrayed on TV was very different from that night in the stable!
Ruth’s request made us stop and think. In the first 300 years after Christ, his birthday wasn’t even celebrated. In the centuries since, many Christmas traditions had been borrowed and adapted from pagan feasts linked to the winter solstice. Outside the church, the modern Christmas has almost completely lost any religious references, becoming an excuse for partying, eating and over-indulgence. Should we teach Ruth to celebrate Christmas just as we did in Singapore, with a tree, gifts, carols and turkey? Or be purist and tell her to avoid anything “non-religious”? It seemed rather spoil-sport to tell her to keep to only the religious Christmas traditions. On the other hand, it seemed silly to encourage her to adopt all the western trappings of Christmas, especially as many of the food items and traditions were unfamiliar in that culture. The question was: how could Christmas be contextualised for this people group?
After some thought, we told her that Christmas was a celebration of Jesus’s birthday, and asked her to tell us how birthdays were celebrated in her culture. “That’s easy,” she said, “We’ll invite friends over for a meal!” In that place, every winter meal was a hotpot meal, so deciding on the menu didn’t require much thought. And since it was a birthday, and having western-style birthday cakes had already become quite commonplace, it was decided that we should have a birthday cake, complete with candles!
The food settled, we suggested that the party would be a good opportunity to share the Christmas story with her guests, so she asked us to tell the story, interspersed with a few carols (translated, of course), before the meal. Instead of decorating the room with auspicious symbols and banners, we bought some tinsel and decorations and hung them on the walls. And of course, each child there was given a small gift, and told that we were celebrating God’s gift of his Son that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
We have celebrated Christmas in many parts of the world, with many different types of food, but that was the first time we had a Christmas hotpot meal!