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It's ‘Bong Natal’ in Malaysia’s tiny Portuguese settlement

Thousands of visitors turn up to share the joy and excitement of welcoming Christ with the Malaccan Portuguese
Visitors admire a decorated Catholic home ahead of Christmas at the Malacca Portuguese settlement in Malaysia.

Visitors admire a decorated Catholic home ahead of Christmas at the Malacca Portuguese settlement in Malaysia. (Photo: Martin Theseira)

Published: December 21, 2023 03:14 AM GMT
Updated: December 21, 2023 03:16 AM GMT

Come Christmas a tiny settlement on the Malacca coast turns into a wonderland. Thousands of visitors arrive in the evenings to look at the brightly lit streets and decorated homes in a Portuguese settlement, a 15-minute drive from the capital city of the coastal state in southwestern Malaysia.

Curtains of colorful, fairy lights flow along the rooftops and the walls of houses and stream down to driveways and lawns. The trees are decked with baubles, candy canes, and other ornaments.

Almost every house has a large nativity set adorned with glittering lights placed on the front porch for all to see, appreciate, and reflect.

Children in Santa suits run around happily and old folks sit and chat, while the womenfolk get busy in the kitchen making jam tarts, sugee cake, cookies, and other festive delicacies. The carolers go from house to house in the seven narrow streets of the settlement.

The families living in the 118 houses are descendants of the Portuguese who conquered Malacca in the 16th century. Over the centuries, they intermarried with local Malays, Indians, and Chinese. The result is a motley group of Catholics who are a unique blend of European and local cultures.

They are known as the Malaccan Portuguese. Their typical Portuguese surnames and language — a creole called Kristang — distinguish them from the rest. There are only about 1,500 left at the Portuguese settlement as many have moved out in search of better prospects elsewhere in the country and abroad.

The settlement was set up in the 1930s by the European Jesuit missionaries, Reverend Fathers A. M. Corado and J. P. Francois, to bring together the scattered community. The early settlers were mostly fishermen.

Martin Theseira, one of the early settlers who himself was a fisherman, recalls the days when celebrating a Merry Christmas, or "Bong Natal" in Kristang, was done the Portuguese way.

“I remember seeing photos taken in the 1920s of Portuguese people celebrating Christmas. There was a live Casuarina tree decorated with balloons, cotton wool, and crepe paper streamers,” he said.

It was in the late 1960s that the people in the settlement started buying artificial trees.

“The seventies and eighties were boom years when many started getting jobs in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. There was more money to spend on Christmas decorations and preparations,” said the 67-year-old.

Theseira is now the heritage, arts and culture adviser to the Malaysian government-appointed Village Development and Safety Committee for the Portuguese Settlement.

As the years passed, outsiders started thronging to the settlement to see the decorations during Christmas. The numbers kept growing, and according to Theseira, the early 1990s saw the most number of visitors.

“The crowds were so huge it was impossible to walk. It was shoulder-to-shoulder,” he told UCA News on Dec 16.

The numbers are no longer as great as before because other Christmas attractions have emerged over the years, he added.

Marina Danker, chairperson of the development and safety committee, said the numbers usually start to swell in the week leading to Christmas. The biggest crowd gathers on the evening of Dec. 31.

“On New Year’s Eve, the place is jam-packed, and there are fireworks,” said the 57-year-old who lives in her family house with her husband. They have six children aged between 22 and 35.

There was an understanding within the community that Christmas decorations would only be put up when Advent starts, said Theseira. “We want to be more prayerful and remember the souls in purgatory in November.”

For Danker, decorations and lights are one of her biggest Christmas expenses. “We spend RM300-400 (US$65-85) each year and it is mostly to replace decorations that can no longer be used. Then every few years, we need to get new lights and we spend more.”

It takes about two days for her sons to put up the tree, decorations, and lights.

“Our decorations are not sponsored or given by politicians. Some of us buy them, some adopt the DIY [do-it-yourself] style. We’re creative, we make our reindeer and Santas,” she told UCA News.

Their motto is to make the place look beautiful this time of the year, and for everyone to enjoy.

“But we never forget our nativity sets — this is all because of Jesus,” Danker added.

Merina Felix, another resident, said she must have probably spent thousands of ringgit on decorations over the years.

“The nativity set is the most important. And the Advent candles, yes. We just enjoy seeing everyone coming and having fun. [People of] All races come, they want to enjoy as well,” said the 62-year-old.

Catholic priests visit the families and bless their homes. “They even give us gifts,” Felix said.

For residents like Felix, Danker and Theseira, the annual practice of decorating their houses is an outpouring of the excitement and joy they feel in welcoming Christ. 

It’s attending the Christmas Mass together as a community at the settlement’s Immaculate Conception Chapel, welcoming friends and relatives, and sharing festive delicacies, that they look forward to every December, said Theseira.

“We feel the joy and the spirit of Christmas within the community. It is not the same outside the settlement,” he added.  

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