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Finding the true meaning of Christmas in Asia

A low-key festive season without the usual pomp can be a beacon of hope and inspiration

Finding the true meaning of Christmas in Asia

Policemen patrol as Catholic devotees attend a Christmas Eve Mass maintaining social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus outside Quiapo Church in Manila on Dec. 24. (Photo: AFP)

Christmas has arrived for the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth at a time when the world is still shivering under the spell of a mortal adversary.

The global coronavirus pandemic has hit the most celebrated Christian feast, which usually comes with much enthusiasm and fanfare.

The fear of death continues to dominate the festive season. Billions of Christians across the world have been forced to cut short Christmas celebrations both spiritually and physically. This is unprecedented for believers of Christ who upheld their faith against great adversities like war, famine, plague, natural disasters and tyranny.

In the time of Covid-19 amid restrictions on movement and gathering and strict health guidelines, Christmas has fallen into a black hole. 

For the first time in known history, Christmas for most people will be marked without Santa Claus, family reunions, caroling, Masses and parties. Many people will be missing from family tables during this holiday season as some have died from the virus and others are fearful of the contagion and death.

Undoubtedly, fewer Christmas cribs and Christmas trees were sold across the globe this year, as market reports suggest. 

Many Christians have decided to give up on decorating and illuminating houses and churches this year. They have also cut their Christmas spending due to the economic fallout from job and income losses caused by the pandemic. 

For most Catholics, this Christmas will be a gloomy and solitary affair with the regular Christmas spirit missing.

Catholics are obliged to confess their sins to priests once a year and many do it days before Christmas. Many have abstained from seeking this spiritual nourishment this year.

In Asia, where Christians are a minority except in the Philippines and Timor-Leste, Christmas used to be the landmark event of the year — the stamp of the minority Christian presence in most parts of Asia.

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With restrictions in place against large public gatherings during Christmas, Christians have become invisible with little opportunity to present their Christian identity, traditional culture and customs. 

In Singapore, Christmas services will be held largely online, which means beautiful Christmas hymns and carols can only resonate virtually. Some churches have raised the limit of Mass attendees from 100 to 250, but that is heart-rending for many more who wished to attend a coveted public Mass.

Churches in Malaysia have also decided to suspend public Masses and public functions including house-to-house caroling amid a surge in Covid-19 infections, which is a cause of dismay for Christians who make up 13 percent of the population. Christmas celebrations including parties and street caravans have become off limits. 

The Christmas season is also time to showcase Asia’s rich cultural heritage in the form of liturgy and associated programs. That is not the case in the time of the pandemic.

With government bans on public gatherings, Catholics in the Philippines and Indonesia, who are accustomed to a wonderfully contagious style of worship in churches and on streets, can no longer display their rich array of culture and customs during Christmas.

In South Korea, the pandemic has been surging in recent months, prompting the government to enforce measures again. Daejeon Diocese has a special Santa Village to comfort Catholics and encourage them to come to church

Many migrant Christians in South Asian nations flock from cities to village homes to celebrate Christmas with families, relatives and friends. But this year many people are not making the journey as they are haunted by fear of the virus and mental anguish.

Bangladeshi Christians have decided to ditch popular traditions like Christmas gatherings, community banquets, carol competitions and cultural functions as a ban on public gathering is in place. Financial constraints and a psycho-social downturn are also causes of this slump.

Yet Christmas this year should not be seen as all gloom and doom. As Christians, we have a true opportunity to contemplate the real meaning of Christmas — being one in love, sharing and sacrifice for others like Jesus Christ two millennia ago.

We need to keep in mind that the first Christmas, when the Son of God was born in a lowly stable, was calm and quiet as it is today. Jesus became the greatest man ever born and the savior of humanity.

Let this low-key Christmas without the usual pomp and color become a beacon of hope and inspiration for us to accomplish great feats while keeping aside the fear of death.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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