Christians wearing Santa Claus clothes parade during the Kunci Taon festivities to celebrate Christmas in North Sulawesi in this file image. This year the Santa parade to distribute gifts to children has been canceled due to Covid-19 health protocols. (Photo courtesy of kuncitaon.com)
Christians in the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi have a rich tradition celebrating Christmas that runs from early December and into January.
Called Kunci Taon, it consists of activities including ecumenical Christmas worship, cultural and seasonal performances, and parades that unite Christians and non-Christians alike.
Kunci Taon — literally meaning the “end of the year” — is specifically linked to the Minahasa, the biggest indigenous group in Christian-majority North Sulawesi province, where more than 67 percent of the 2.5 million population are Christian.
The events not only attract Christians but followers of other religions who participate in cultural parades, ecumenical gatherings, Christmas and New Year worship and in visiting relatives.
“Christmas unites us all and serves as a lesson for younger generations. We should maintain it as it imparts local wisdom on future generations,” Theresia Putong, 28, a Catholic, told UCA News.
“It’s in line with the motto of Minahasa people: ‘We all are brothers and sisters’,” she said.
She said the celebrations peak between Christmas Day and Jan. 1 with various communal events that mix local culture and Christmas traditions, including ethnic dance and musical performances and the singing of Christmas carols.
Most people turn up wearing traditional clothes, but many choose a Christmas theme that sees quite a few dressed as Santa Claus, she said.
“I’m proud of this. It feels like celebrating Christmas this way only exists in my culture,” she added.
David Legi, 58, a Protestant, said that for the Minahasa, Kunci Taon is a thanksgiving celebration.
Putong and Legi said the Covid-19 pandemic will cast a shadow over this year's celebrations, but Kunci Taon will go ahead with health protocols being observed. They will be slightly different as several activities are not included to prevent large crowds, they said.
“Unfortunately, the Santa Claus parade where Christmas gifts are distributed to children from a series of floats is off the itinerary,” said Legi.
He said his family will only attend some ecumenical Christmas events.
“Whatever the challenge is, we must persevere because it is a heritage given to us by our ancestors,” he said.
According to Father Revi Tanod, the local priest, Kunci Taon started soon after the arrival of Christianity brought by the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century.
He said the celebration has stood the test of time, mainly thanks to the descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers who still live in North Sulawesi — known as Borgo — and who give the event a colonial taste.
The tradition dates back to the old celebration of Jesus’ birth based on the Gregorian calendar, which is why it lasts into January, he added.
The priest said the Christmas celebration in North Sulawesi is unique as it involves all Christian denominations and other faiths on a scale not seen in other parts of the Muslim-majority country.
“While Christians in other parts of Indonesia are still waiting for Christmas, we in Minahasa start it early on Dec. 1 with parades and parties,” he said.
“It’s an expression of thanksgiving because God has blessed us during the past year.”
Father Tanod said villagers, churches, local government and civic organizations work hand in hand to ensure that everyone is not left out during the celebrations
“In it, we thank God for his countless blessings, for harmony, joy and togetherness. These are values celebrated and protected in Kunci Taon,” said Father Tanod, who heads the Catholic Education Institute in Manado Diocese.
This tradition sees the true spirit of Christmas when ordinary people, along with priests, nuns, police, soldiers and others from all walks of life, come together as one.
“It’s a celebration of joy while praying for more blessings, health, peace, harmony and fortune in the coming year,” said Father Tanod, who is also a lecturer at De La Salle Catholic University in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi.