Joy to the World: Unwrapping Christmas customs from around the globe

One of the many unique aspects of the religious congregations founded by St. Arnold Janssen is the diversity of their members. The priests and brothers who make up the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) and women who are members of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS) and the Holy Spirit Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (SSpSAP) don’t just serve all around the world, but they come from nations far and wide. Their personal experiences from a wide variety of cultures help them to serve God’s people no matter where they go. As the Christmas season approaches, we asked a few members of these congregations to share some of their favorite customs and traditions from their home countries.

Fr. Akizou Kamina, SVD

In my country, most people think Christmas is more of a celebration for children than adults. The reason is that it is the birth of the baby Jesus, the Messiah. It is a moment to offer gifts to children. I still remember receiving new clothes and toys from my parents every Christmas from the age of 2 to 14. There is no gift exchange like in the United States. Only parents are supposed to give to children, and they don’t expect anything from their children.

In addition, during the Christmas season especially from the beginning of the month of December, most radio stations played Christmas songs. As a child, my friends and I built an outdoor Christmas crib where we spent hours at night chatting and eating.

Growing up, there were not Christmas decorations at most houses in my town, but nowadays, there is a tendency to see more decorated houses during the whole month of December.

Sr. Agathe Bramkamp, SSpS

The first “announcer” of Christmas being around the corner was the aroma of fresh baked cookies wafting through the house. Not just any cookies, but “Christmas cookies.” That stirred the imagination of us children and we were “good” in anticipation of the gifts that any angel or the Christ child would bring.

The Christmas tree was cut in the woods and brought into the house the day before Christmas. It was trimmed with beautiful ornaments and real candles were clipped on the branches! When the candles were lit, my mother would ring a bell and we all could enter the living room. There were presents under the tree and a great assortment of those Christmas cookies for each of us.

...But first one of my older siblings had to solemnly read the beginning of the gospel of St. John to us all; then we sang Christmas songs, three, four… and all the while those gifts stayed untouched! But then…

Frt. Rafael Yescas, SVD

In my hometown of Oaxaca, Catholic families bring a doll with them to church on Christmas Eve to represent baby Jesus. Some even wear the doll in traditional infant carriers. During Mass, mothers sing lullabies to the dolls. Following the service, the families process home carrying candles and lay the dolls in mangers outside their homes.

Sr. Aprilia Untarto, SSpS

We put up and decorated the Christmas tree on Dec 15. On Christmas Eve, we had a nice dinner and went to Church. Since we lived in a majority Muslim population, we did not have midnight Mass. We went again for Christmas Day Mass in the morning. 

Bro. Brian McLauchlin, SVD
United States

At Christmas each year, about 15 members of my extended family gathered at my grandmother and aunt’s house for a big meal. We always had roasted turkey with my grandmother’s special stuffing, which was incredibly good, and mashed potatoes and gravy. It was a time to see the relatives who we wouldn’t see otherwise throughout the year. I just remember it was food, food, and more food!

Leo Tuang

In Myanmar, large groups of young people have started going door to door at night and sharing the good news of Christmas with the pious by singing Christmas carols, praying, and reading passages from the Bible. It may take up to two weeks to proclaim the good news of Christmas before the actual celebration. The reason for this activity is to infuse peace, joy, and the love of Christ in the hearts of all who believe.  

Ladouceur Flarissaint

In Haiti, some local radio stations hold competitions during Christmastime. Children call in and sing Christmas songs or recite poems related to the holiday. The winners are announced at church, so all of the families can witness the exciting news. One year, I took second place for a poem that I performed. I won a small toy airplane that had a red and white star on it for Christmas. Later, when I went to journalism school, I helped organize a similar contest at the radio station where I was working.

Fr. Simon Hoang, SVD

I was born and grew up in a warzone during wartime in Vietnam. As a child, Christmas was always an exciting but fearful time. Christmas was frequently the target of attacks from “the enemy.”

Being involved in Christmas carols and plays was always a childhood fond memory. After the unification of the country, Christmas became a challenging contest of faith. The communist government forced us young high schoolers to take major final exams during Christmas to prevent us from fully participating in the event. In fact, I did enjoy that tension. The communist government still uses that same religious persecution tactic to this day to deter the youth from going to Church on Christmas day. However, it seems to me that it has “backfired” on them. Our faith grows stronger and our love for Christ is deepening.

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