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Phnom Penh's meaning of Christmas

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As globalisation sneaks up on Cambodia, Christmas trees and tinsel are becoming an increasingly common sight, but some worry the true meaning of Christmas may be lost

Photo by: Anita surewicz

One of the stores at Phnom Penh's Sorya Center.

In a country where only around one percent of the population is Christian, it comes as no surprise that Christmas is not a big public celebration, or even a national holiday. However, as the forces of globalisation penetrate Cambodia, Santa Claus, tinsel and Christmas trees are becoming an increasingly common sight, at least in the capital.

Prach Chantheun, 24, works at a popular cafe serving locals and expatriates alike. He explains that for Christmas, his foreign employers will organise a party for all staff members.

"With my friends, we also go shopping, exchange cards and buy presents, as well as go eating, drinking and clubbing," he said.

He describes Christmas as a happy time, acknowledging that the concept is foreign but adding that many Cambodian high school students, in particular, like to celebrate the event.

"Last year, I went to church with my friend who is a Christian, so I know about Jesus and why Christmas is celebrated," he said.

Others are less aware.

A colleague of Prach Chantheun said, "I know Christmas because of Santa Claus. It is a happy time but no, I don't know anything about Jesus or the religious aspect," Chantheun's colleague said.

The commercial idea has really picked up, though mainly in Phnom Penh.

Catholicism in Cambodia

The Roman Catholic Church in Cambodia has approximately 20,000 members, of which around 5,000 live in Phnom Penh.

According to Father Bob, parish priest at St Joseph's Parish in northern Phnom Penh, Christmas is now much better known than before, when only one or two hotels catering to foreigners would mount celebrations.

"Commerce is taking over everything, " he said. "Though I suppose that's part of the modern mentality - make more money. I am worried that we are losing the real meaning of things and that we miss the deep message [of Christmas]."

Members of his congregation are less concerned. Uch Maly, who joined the Catholic faith some 15 years ago, acknowledges that many Cambodians celebrate Christmas merely as a happy occasion, but he sees no problem with that.

"It's good, it develops people and encourages them to think about others," she said. "Since I became a Christian, there has been a big opening of minds about the celebration, and Christmas is now featured in hotels, stores and on TV."

Fellow believer Duong Savong, Catholic since 1995, stresses the responsibility the church has in explaining the true significance of Christmas. "At a general level, it is good that people celebrate, as they want peace in their hearts. But the church must enlighten them to what it is all about, that God sent his son to the earth to save us," he said.   

At the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tuol Kork, pastors Lim Pheng and Pech Sopheng describe Christmas as a time for spreading the good news, reminding believers of the birth of Jesus and his second coming.

"At our church, we will celebrate with a meal, the nativity play, Bible games and an exchange of gifts," Lim Pheng said. "We expect around 300 people to come, some bringing non-Christian friends along as well."

Like Father Bob, Lim Pheng and Pech Sopheng worry that the meaning of Christmas is being lost amid its popularisation. "Many connect Santa Claus with the Christian message," said Lim Pheng. "In the past five years, I have seen a big change in popular attitudes towards Christmas. The commercial idea has really picked up, though mainly in Phnom Penh and other bigger cities."

"At home, we prepare the tree, decorate it and buy presents," said Lim Phousimalis, coordinator of nurturing Christian commitment at faith-based NGO Hagar.

While most of  Lim Phousimalis's  family is Christian, she explains that even non-Christian members of her family, as well as neighbours and friends, join in the celebrations. "I think the message of Jesus is powerful, even if you don't know about him. He was born in poverty and had a difficult life. I think many Cambodians can relate to that," she said.

Christmas celebrations

As Christmas carols bellow out in malls around town and shops such as IBC and Peace Book Centre stock a wide array of trees, glitter, human-sized Santas and other Christmas paraphernalia, it is clear the holiday is becoming increasingly established in Cambodia. Even local markets and small corner shops sell Christmas-related items.

Unlike Christmas traditions in many Western countries, however, there are no customs of serving particular foods to top off the party. At the Adventist church, pastor Lim Pheng says they usually serve special Christmas curry with French bread. At Lim Phousimalis's house, the big spread includes beef lok lak and seafood.

Mass in Khmer will be held at St Joseph's parish on the 24th at 6pm, and the 25th at 8am. Some 1, 500 members of the congregation are expected to attend. In the run-up to this climax of the Christian calendar, more spiritual activities have also been arranged to prepare the faithful for the event.

"At our church, we also raise money for the poor. This year, the money will go towards building houses," explained Duong Savong. "The most important message is to tell people, not just through words but actions as well, that their lives are valuable, that despite all the corruption and other problems in our country, there is value to our lives." 

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