Christmas in Malaysia

The observance of the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec 25 is celebrated in Malaysia like everywhere else in the world; it is a time for family and friends; hope and rejoicing; love and understanding; and giving and forgiving. However, the image of a white Christmas - that of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and Jack Frost nipping at the nose - doesn't quite fit in too well with a country that is merely seven degrees shy of the Equator. The average temperatures here range from a low of 22°C to a high of 33°C, so a sunny (or perhaps, rainy) Christmas is a given.

By far, Christmas is viewed as a universal celebration that carries a secular rather than religious meaning. One need only look at Santa Claus and his appeal to children of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, to realise how much it cuts across the board. Perhaps due to this wide appeal (or some would say, commercialisation), retailers and hoteliers take an active approach by putting up non-religious motifs such as snow, stockings, Santa and his reindeers, candy canes and, of course, the Christmas tree. White, green, red and gold are the traditional colours of the season.

Urban areas like the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the greater Klang Valley come alive during the Yuletide, with bright colourful lights and decorations perking up homes and business premises, providing a festive atmosphere. Shopping malls and hotels especially have become increasingly sophisticated in their decorations, trying to outdo the competition in their bid to attract shoppers and guests.

In many ways however, Christmas in Malaysia is a public holiday and is still very much a religious affair. To prepare themselves spiritually, the Christian community here, who make up about 7% of the population, observe Advent, the four-week period prior to Christmas, with prayers, Bible-reading and for some, fasting.

The word "Advent", is defined in Latin as "to come to" or "coming", and signifies the birth, as well as the final coming of Jesus Christ. The period of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (which marks the beginning of the Church Year), and lasts anywhere from 21 to 28 days. In some churches, especially Catholic churches, wreaths are used to mark the weeks in the season of Advent. The Advent wreath, as it is called, consists of a circle made out of evergreens and four candles. Usually, a fifth large candle, white in colour, is placed in the middle of the wreath.

The shape of the wreath, the circle, symbolises the eternal nature of God, while the four candles - three purple, one rose coloured - represent the four weeks of Advent. The light from the candles represents Jesus as the light of the world. On the first Sunday of Advent, only one candle is lit. With each succeeding week, an additional candle is lit, so that by the fourth week all four candles are alight. The first candle of Advent is the candle of Hope; the second, Peace; the third, which is the rose coloured candle, is the candle of Joy; while the fourth represents Love.

As the big day looms closer, preparations are made: homes are decorated; Christmas trees, usually artificial, are put up; greeting cards are delivered; gifts are bought and placed under the tree; and festive songs - Jim Reeves being ubiquitous - are played over and over again. It is also a common sight to see choir groups and church communities, sometimes with a tanned Santa in tow, making their rounds, visiting orphanages, old folks homes, and hospital wards, among others.

Christmas Eve is a day that is as much anticipated as the big day itself. Traditionally, it is a time for families and loved ones to gather; marked by the Christmas dinner which is usually a noisy affair. Then it's time for prayer and thankgiving as families congregate in churches for midnight mass or Christmas service. A Nativity play (or Christmas pageant) is usually held before service begins.

In Malaysia, it is common to see people from different beliefs (among the non-Muslims) attending these church gatherings, to observe if not to soak in the festive spirit. These midnight services are characteristically very lively; people of different backgrounds and ethnicity (both locals and foreigners), all decked in their best, could be seen singing hymns and carols with much enthusiasm, led by a spirited choir.

The celebration then continues till the wee hours of the morning. Typically, families would have late meals (known here as supper) at home, during which the colourful Christmas lights would be blinking, Jim Reeves would be singing in the background, the kids would be running around excited, and gifts would change hands. Then, as is customary in Malaysia during festivals, Christian families would entertain guests in their homes throughout the day, in adherence to the concept of 'rumah terbuka' or 'open house'. In a way, this unique practice makes the celebration of Christmas more meaningful, more in line with the spirit of the season.

Of course, the festivities wouldn't be complete without food. Though you may still find the traditional Western offerings of the season - from nuts and fruitcakes to apple pie and roast turkey - much of the menu is made up of local delicacies including such favourites as devil's curry and beef rendang. Though Christmas is marked as a one-day holiday, for many the celebrations do not end until after New Year's day, which is seen by many as simply an extension of Yuletide.


C-Right 2014 by Langkawi Gazette