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Christmas in a Muslim Country


© St. Petersburg Times

The mid-December night on Samosir Island was misty and cool. Set within immense Lake Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Samosir consists of the rippled rim and slopes created 75,000 years ago by a volcanic explosion said to be Earth's largest seismic event within the past million years.

The Equator lies to the south, about a half day's bumpy ride by bus, but the island's elevation negates the tropical latitude. We were dozing, tucked in sleeping bags, when a rousing chorus of Gloria Hallelujah and O Come All Ye Faithful woke us. The singing grew louder, closer. A guitarist strummed Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore and the mystery choir chimed in. My companion and I, having chosen the nation with the world's largest Muslim population so that we could avoid the year-end holiday excesses, were nonetheless about to experience a Yuletide reminiscent of family celebrations from decades past.

We knew that a few of Indonesia's 3,000 islands had been visited by Christian missionaries. What we observed last December and January was that carol singing, community Biblical pageants, family meals and card exchanges are the mainstays of Christmas and New Year's revels in this multicultural archipelago.

Just like being back home -- if you omit creating an eye-popping tree, scrimmaging with mall crowds for more electronic presents and out-drinking your mates at office parties.

Instead, during a few winter weeks in Indonesia, we experienced Christmas, New Year's, the beginning of Ramadan (a month of daytime fasting for devout Muslims), Chinese or lunar New Year's and Idul Fitri, the several days of feasting at the end of Ramadan. We launched into a series of local festivities featuring colored lights, music and all the traffic associated with family visits and food-shopping excursions. But the tone was more restrained and the signs, lights and images looked like the Christmas season I remembered as a child.

Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar, so the dates change from year to year. In 1998, daytime fasting starts just a couple of hours after the Dec. 31 firecrackers fade. The government has asked people who celebrate Christmas and New Year's to be considerate of those who will begin fasting. Some expatriate residents interpret that to mean New Year's Eve parties have been banned outright.

Indonesia received Islam peacefully during the 14th century through visitors on the trade routes. Prior to that, Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms were well established, but by the time the colonial powers arrived in the 16th century, Islam was the dominant religion. Freedom of religion was protected at the time of Indonesia's independence in 1945. On the whole, the Islamic majority and the Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities are generous in their toleration of each other.

In Berestagi, a mountain town north of Samosir and Lake Toba that is home to the Batak tribes, school children and adults parade along the wide main street on Dec. 25 and 26. The spectacle features Santa Claus, angels, Mary and infant, the 12 wise men and a children's choir trooping behind.

"Each Christian church has a dance and choral competition to find out who is best," explained Anita Pelawi, who runs a travelers' guest house (called a losmen) in Berestagi. "All the children put in a little extra work, but the kids love it. Muslim, Christian and Chinese mix without problems," said Pelawi.

Cakes and cookies are served on New Year's Day to friends and family who visit, Pelawi added. She makes barbecue and cakes for Christmas and invites her losmen guests for carol singing and dancing.

Sumatra's Batak tribes were persuaded to become Christian by missionaries from the British, American, Dutch and French powers that were vying for colonial dominance. Catholic and several Protestant denominations still are active in the area.

In Sumatra, the sweet tones of schoolchildren practicing Christmas carols rang out in every town we visited. Angels We Have Heard on High was a big favorite, with the enthusiastic Gloria chorus fading out in the lower registers. I heard O Come All Ye Faithful in Bahasa Indonesian many times and Santa Claus is Coming to Town played by a teen rock band. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which I hadn't considered a Christmas carol, resonated at every rehearsal.

We were invited to one of the evening holiday festivals in Ambarita, a Batak tribal hamlet in the middle of the rice paddies of Samosir Island. Lines of motorbikes were parked by the road at the community park where a stage had been set up. Clutches of young men hovered at the edges of the crowd watching the teenage girls in the choir. Children in tidy school uniforms walked to the microphone and read passages from the Bible in the same too-fast, nervous chirping heard in American auditoriums. Then they bowed quickly and hastened to their chairs while an indulgent teacher beamed and parents applauded.

The palm trees, torches for illumination and roast pig with rice in banana leaves were atmospheric details not found in New England, but I could almost see this holiday party in 1960s Clearwater.

In Indonesia, people use artificial evergreen trees if they decorate a tree at all, and some families exchange gifts on the 25th. Cards are sent to distant family members.

Christmas Day is a national holiday in Indonesia. With a country so spread out, television provides the glue for national unity. On Christmas Day, a government official makes a speech on the usual topics of peace and unity, tolerance for other religions, followed by televised church programs and government sponsored programing of singing and dancing.

On Bali, Christmas is left to tourists and expatriates; a unique blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism serves as the local religion. Rachael Barrett, an American who has a Balinese family, owns an art gallery in Ubud. During the holiday season, she decorates a live tree with wooden ornaments carved for export, and notes the irony that many of the items western consumers purchase to give each other at Christmas are made in a country where the holiday is hardly noticed.

Seasonal decorations are hung in stores and tree ornaments have become available as more Europeans, Australians and Americans come to live on Bali. These expats go to the big hotels or restaurants for special Christmas and New Year's dinners and performances.

Instead of a traditional turkey-centered meal at her home, Barrett holds a fancy Christmas-morning champagne brunch with pancakes, strawberries and cream and other fixings. Barrett said family members might donate money to favorite orphanages or charities and some exchange gifts, but not on the scale of the U.S. consumer. Usually the presents are new clothes for holiday celebrations at the local church, where the community joins the children singing traditional Christmas carols in Bahasa Indonesian.

Later we were back in Jakarta, which supports a vibrant international community and a striving middle class that embraces western consumer goods and notions of upward mobility. The new shopping malls, and there are many, display trees or Santa Claus with elves, music and all the trimmings during the holiday season, but the images seemed dated, as if culled from old greeting cards or gift wrap. But excessive gift giving isn't the norm there anyway.

"Christmas in Jakarta is like Christmas in other countries, but here we start only two weeks before Christmas,'" said Romy Herlambang, a manager at the Shangri-La hotel in Jakarta. If office buildings are decorated with trees made of light strings, the government requires the businesses to put a sign up on the main road acknowledging the festivals of the various religious groups as they come up -- Christmas for the Christians, Idul Fitri for Muslims, and similar holidays for Hindus and Buddhists.

"The government . . . believes we can live together in harmony. We have the attitude that your religion is yours, ours is ours," said Herlambang, who is Muslim.

"I was raised by a modern family: My great-great grandfather was a Hindu who married a Muslim. Another relative married a Christian, and they all visit each other."

Herlambang said she visits Christian neighbors and exchanges food at Christmas time and "They visit me during Lebaran (the end of the Ramadan fast, also called Idul Fitri). We send cards to each other, including Muslim people, but the cards are mostly wishing "seasons greetings' and "happy new year', and are not necessarily religious."

As in Bali, Jakarta's expats focus on the big hotels for Christmas eve buffets and New Year's dinners. "At the Jakarta Shangri-La we install a big tree, decorated in gold and red, and we have caroling" leading up to Christmas said Herlambang. "An expat staying in the hotel dresses up as Santa Claus and drives up in a limo and gives out candies to everyone. There's an effort to balance Christian celebrations with Indonesian traditions such as boiled rice in coconut palm and using the colors of yellow and green for festive occasions. For Idul Fitri, the feast of breaking fast after Ramadan, we make chocolate or sugar carvings of mosques." "In Indonesia," she added, "family is very involved in everyone's life. It's not the point to get drunk and have parties and spend lots of money." Former St. Petersburg resident L. Peat O'Neil now is a reporter for the Washington Post.

Originally published December 21, 1997

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