Yen Bai Church is decorated with a Christmas tree, lights and decorations to attract people on Christmas Eve. (Photo: UCA News)
Priests in northern Vietnam have called on Catholics to focus on the meaning of Christmas and avoid secular cultural performance and grand Christmas scenes.
Father Joseph Chu Van Khuong, head of Nghia Lo Deanery with over 15,000 Catholics, said Christmas is the true gift and joy that God offers human beings, so people should prepare their spirits to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ religiously rather than with cultural performances and lavish celebrations.
Father Khuong, 53, said in the past many parishes held cultural performances lasting two hours before Midnight Mass. Singers sang secular songs on romantic love and native land while dancers in miniskirts did hip-hop dances in churches. Midnight Masses start at 9pm or 10pm.
“This year all those secular music and performances are not allowed to take place on Christmas Eve,” he said.
Father Khuong, who was assigned to Nghia Lo Parish in June, said parishes are asked to send their Christmas Eve programs including dances, plays and hymns on Biblical stories to him for approval.
The priest said only plays and dances which focus on the salvation history and the nativity, and help Massgoers reflect upon the mystery of Christmas, are highlighted.
He also called on parishes to cut extravagant spending on decorating churches and making nativity scenes as Catholics have financial difficulties caused by the Covid-19 lockdown and the spreading African swine fever virus.
“We should go to confession, reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters and with God to celebrate Christmas,” he said, adding that it is useless celebrating Jesus’ birth with lavish nativity scenes, artificial Christmas trees and colorful moving lights.
He said Catholics should celebrate Christmas meaningfully by paying attention to their neighbors who are homeless, alone and suffer illnesses and lack of food. They should share Christmas joy and Christian charity with other people.
Father Khuong said Catholics from the parishes of Nghia Lo, Vinh Quang and Vang Cai in Yen Bai province are offering free food to patients at Nghia Lo General Hospital in December.
Women practice the clarinet for a Christmas Eve performance at Yen Bai Church. (Photo: UCA News)
Parishioners tighten belts
Mary Nguyen Thi Van Quynh, who directs the Christmas performance program in Yen Bai Parish, said local associations and groups have registered 14 acts but she will select 10 of them. Secular acts will be dropped.
Quynh, a catechist, said clarinets and drums, Christmas carols, dance and Christmas plays will be performed by Catholic mothers, youths and children for 90 minutes on the night of Christmas Eve. Massgoers will march in procession carrying a big statue of the infant Jesus into the church before Midnight Mass at 9.30pm.
John Nguyen Ngoc Ha from Vinh Quang Parish said it took parishioners two weeks to make a grand nativity scene and a 20-meter-high Christmas tree at the church, costing nearly 100 million dong (US$4,350) last Christmas. Local families gave 400,000 dong each.
Ha, who used to daily earn 50,000 dong by working at a restaurant and has become jobless due to the pandemic, said families could only offer 150,000 dong each this year for Christmas decorations.
“We highly appreciate Father Khuong’s helpful suggestions on reducing Christmas celebrations,” said the 45-year-old single father of one, who collects firewood in forests and catches fish in rivers for a living. Many attend retreats, go to confession, receive the Eucharist and make donations to people in need this Advent.
Father Joseph Nguyen Dinh Tuyen, parish priest of Yen Bai, said the parish had to reuse old nativity scenes and ornaments this year as people had struggled to make donations due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said the parish must decorate the church beautifully as a destination to introduce Catholicism to other people. Some 10,000 people visit, watch Christmas performances and take photos of the nativity and church on Christmas Eve.
“We try to bring them Christmas peace and joy because Christmas is a religious festival for all people regardless of their backgrounds,” he said.
The parish also prepares a big Christmas cake and treats children after Mass.
Father Tuyen said the Catholic Mother Association raises funds and provides gifts for 200 orphans, people with physical disabilities and patients on Christmas Day.
Local parishes start to decorate churches and erect nativity scenes two weeks before Christmas as a way to remind people about the coming festive season.
People including followers of other faiths decorate their houses and roads with moving lights, Christmas trees and Santa Claus images, although Christmas is not a public holiday in the communist country and students have to take semester-end exams on Dec. 25.