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Traditions from around the globe

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From the decorative nativity scenes of the Vietnamese Catholic Community in Pooraka to ‘angels’ leaving presents for children of Hungarian heritage, Christmas is a time of rich tradition and devout worship for Adelaide’s 20 migrant communities and four Eastern rite eparchies.

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Mgr Minh-Tam Nguyen, chaplain of the Vietnamese Community, said Christmas was a “busy time of preparation and celebration”, starting with a working bee to clean the centre, put up lights and install nativity scenes inside and outside the church.

“The large scenes are designed to catch the eye and imagination of people,” he said.

As spiritual preparation, many Vietnamese take up increased opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation and they often attend Mass and carols on Christmas Eve as well as Christmas Day.

For the Eastern European communities such as Lithuanian, Polish and Slovenian, Christmas brings back memories of winter celebrations including bringing fir trees into the church, walking through the snow to Midnight Mass and blessing all parts of the home, including any animals in stables.

Sharing blessed, unleavened bread is a tradition on Christmas Eve for Eastern Europeans.

Hungarian chaplain Fr Laszlo Horvath OFM said the family gathering and meal on Christmas Eve was followed by children going outdoors while presents are left under the tree by “angels” and then coming inside to the “beautiful sound of a ringing bell”, which means the angels have left.

Lithuanian Vice President Mr Peter Jaciunskis said on Christmas Eve families enjoyed dinner, generally consisting of 12 courses, with fish and no meat. A community meal has been popular in the past.

Slovenian chaplain Fr David Srumpf OFM said until a few decades ago Christmas was strictly a religious ‘holyday’ due to Slovenia being part of Communist Yugoslavia, and was celebrated privately.

“The word ‘Christmas’ was never mentioned on radio or TV, and there were no Christmas songs,” he said.

In Slovenian tradition there are three ‘holy evenings’: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and the evening before the feast of the Epiphany, the feast of Three Kings.

On these days in Slovenia, the entire family would gather to pray and bless their home with incense and holy water.

“They walked through all the rooms, the front and back yard, and also through the stable, where animals were blessed,” he said.

Fr Stephen Kulathumkarott

St Thomas Syro Malankara Catholic Church is one of the 23 Eastern Rites in the Holy Catholic Church. Fr Stephen Kulathumkarott, coordinator chaplain for Australia and New Zealand, said the faithful hang “lanterns of Christmas stars” instead of Christmas wreaths on their houses from December 1 to January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.

Homes are decorated with Christmas trees, cribs and stars.

From December 1 there are special prayers and abstention from meat, and for some fish and egg.

Carol services are the highlight of preparations for the celebration of the nativity. The entire community gathers in groups, visits each house and sing carols to the accompaniment of drums and other musical instruments.

Father Christmas dances to the tune of the carol music and distributes candy to the children and the vulnerable.

“This is a Christian witness of communion, joy and sharing with the people around,” Fr Stephen said.

“Liturgical services include the feast of the nativity of our Lord Jesus, called ‘Yaldo’ in Syriac, the liturgical language of the Syro-Malankara Rite. (Syriac is a variant of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke).”

The nativity service on Christmas Eve begins with a solemn procession featuring lit candles and blessed frankincense from inside the church to outside where dried-out palm leaves used on Palm Sunday are placed in a cross-shaped pit.

The celebrant lights the fire symbolising the Lord’s birth and everyone offers the blessed frankincense as the magi’s gifts to the child Jesus.

The celebrations conclude with the solemn ‘Holy Qurbono’.

Another Eastern Rite community, Syro Malabar, which originates from Kerala in southern India, celebrates with door-to-door carol singing, sharing food with neighbours and family get-togethers.

Carol groups include a ‘Christmas Appooppan’, the Keralite Santa Claus. Another tradition in Kerala is plum cakes: “Nowhere in the world can one find a replica of the special cake that is baked and sold in hordes across Kerala during Christmas season,” said Gaveen George Community coordinator.

Harold Machado, leader of the Maranthi Indian Catholic Community, said one of the main events in Vasai region of India. leading up to Christmas was building nativity scenes or community cribs in respective ‘wadis’ (local villages) with competitions held by parishes and organisation. Families display nativity sets and cribs in their homes and prepare traditional Christmas sweets like karanji (sweet dumplings), nankhatai (shortbread), kal kal (sweet pastry), shankarpali (fried crisp biscuits) which are distributed to family and friends.

On Christmas Eve, villagers gather around the village crib to add final touches and decide on festivities after Midnight Mass.

Local churches hold special Christmas Midnight Masses with carol singing. People dress in their best attire, suit jackets for men and a saree or western outfit for women.

After Midnight Mass, people go back to their villages to celebrate the planned festivities.

“There’s nothing like enjoying marinated green chicken wrapped in banana leaves underneath the star-studded sky in front of the village crib with a glass of country made liquor and lots of folk music sung on the beats of a ‘ghumat’ (hand-made percussion drum),” Harold said.

“Christmas day is more of a family day, with traditional food, visiting family and friends and visiting local beaches to see the sunset.

“We try to replicate our traditions and cultures from back home wherever possible, influencing and adopting new ones along the way.”

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