When my wife and I arrived almost 40 years ago as young, novice missionaries on the island of Irian Jaya – now called Papua – Indonesia, we had a steep learning curve ahead of us. Becoming bicultural, bilingual and familiar with the people’s starkly different worldview was just a part. One thing we did not anticipate was the experience of learning how Papuan believers celebrated Christmas.
Years before we arrived the gospel had reached the coastal area of the island where we took up residence. There already were many churches throughout the area. As new teachers at the Bible school, we came in contact with Papuan believers from all over the region who were students at the school. With seminary degree in hand, I naively thought I was all set to teach them the basics of theology and missions. Little did I realize what they would teach me, especially about celebrating Christmas.
They taught me that Christmas is…
More about community than family. Coming from the West, I was ingrained in the tradition that the holidays were all about family. It was about having our own Christmas tree in the house, and alone time with family for most of the day as we ate and celebrated together. Not so the Papuans. For them the day was all about community. It was about spending most of the day together at the church. It was about having fellowship around a community meal. It was about having just one Christmas tree, not in their home, but for everyone at the church.
More about Jesus as “The Light” than Jesus as “The Gift.” For my family, the focal activity of the day was unwrapping gifts found under the family Christmas tree. Of course, we taught our children that Jesus was the true Gift. For the Papuans, the focal point of the day was in the evening when the church lights were dimmed and the lighting of candles on the Christmas tree took place while the congregation sang “Malam Kudus” (Silent Night). They sang it year after year as the candles were lit. They were so grateful for the light of the gospel that had come to them.
More about celebration than vacation. As a family we liked to use the Christmas week as a getaway to the cool mountains. Later, when our children were in boarding school and came home during Christmas break, we especially desired that family time away. Not so the Papuans. They wouldn’t give a thought of going anywhere, unless it was back to their village to be with their fellow villagers. For them celebrating Christmas was spending night-after-night in special church services together. Christmas was about celebrating Christ’s coming as a community all week long.
Those were good lessons the Papuan believers taught my family and me. How about you? Do you have some overseas Christmas experiences you would like to share in response to this blog? Go ahead and write. We’d like to hear.