There’s no space for even a little Saint Nick in local celebrations as the few Christians put their own mark on the holiday, Bennett Murray finds.
Christmas has arrived to Phnom Penh in full swing as shops set up plastic trees and Santa Claus dummies. But while many in the Kingdom’s Buddhist majority seem to enjoy the imported traditions, leaders of Cambodia’s small Christian community want to define Christmas on Khmer terms.
“Santa Claus only comes for the good boys, but Christ came for both the good and bad people,” said Barnabas Mam, a local evangelical minister and regional director of Ambassadors for Christ International.
Saint Nicholas is not welcome among local devout Christians, and while Barnabas has come to tolerate Christmas trees, he stresses to his followers that it is not part of Christianity. Gifts may also be exchanged, but the rest of the celebrations are uniquely Cambodian.
Nativity scenes are performed with the colourful steps and costumes of Cambodia’s traditional yike dance, and original Khmer Christmas carols are sung to the tunes of classic Cambodian melodies – Barnabas himself wrote around 400 Khmer Christmas carols while imprisoned in both Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and Thailand following his escape. And instead of turkey or ham, Cambodian Christians prefer eating a chicken curry noodle dish called nom banh chok for Christmas dinner.
“For us, [Christmas] is more Christ-focused, where in the West it’s more of a national holiday and the season that you can get good stuff at good prices,” Barnabas said.
Cambodian Christmas also lasts for all of December and into the New Year. Not for theological reasons, Barnabas said, but due to a lack of trained ministers to conduct ceremonies.
“Because of the exponential growth of the church, there are so many churches that don’t have preachers, so they invite preachers from Phnom Penh,” Barnabas said, adding that he spends every December conducting three to four ceremonies a week throughout the country.
Born to a Buddhist family in the capital, the 63-year-old pastor found his faith in 1972 while infiltrating a meeting of evangelicals as a communist spy. Instead of reporting back to base, however, Barnabas found himself moved by a pastor’s sermon and converted to Christianity. He legally adopted the name Barnabas, which he shares with an early Christian apostle, after it was given to him by a British missionary in a Thai refugee camp.
Arun Sok Nhep, chief executive of the Bible Society of Cambodia and the first Cambodian to translate the Bible into Khmer, said that the lack of local Christmas traditions mean that Cambodian Christians must create their own.
“We try to find identity as Christians and it takes time, and we want to have faith and express it in the Khmer way without syncretism,” Arun said, adding that Cambodian Christians must stick to the religion’s roots in ancient Israel.
Adopting Western Christmas traditions wholesale, Arun said, will not suffice due to cultural differences.
“For many Cambodians, if Christianity looks Western, it is very hard to accept. In the West you express it with the festivals and culture, and we express it in our culture. But the core message doesn’t change.”
Barnabas takes particular umbrage with foreign missionaries who attempt to impose Western-style church culture on Cambodians, referring to it as “colonisation”.
For Piseth Heng, a youth pastor at Youth Life Fellowship Cambodia, Christmas day will be a subdued family affair at home. Presents will be exchanged via the secret Santa system, and Christmas Eve dinner will take place at a restaurant yet to be determined.
His Christmas tree, however, was short-lived.
“I did have my Christmas tree set up, but then my son crawled in and destroyed it,” he said with a laugh.