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Santa costumes for sale on the riverside. VICTORIA MØRCK MADSEN
Santa costumes for sale on the riverside. VICTORIA MØRCK MADSEN

An oral history of Christmas in Cambodia

Amidst the onslaught of holiday tunes, Santa-hat-wearing waiters and Yuletide-themed events throughout Phnom Penh, it can be hard to imagine a December in the capital unaffected by Christmas cheer.

But a look back in recent history shows a city largely unconcerned with eggnog or Saint Nick.

Christmas first came to the Kingdom with the French, but according to Australian historian Milton Osborne, at that time the celebration was mostly overshadowed by New Year’s.

“Clara Malraux [wife of French novelist Andre Malraux] gives an account in her memoirs of New Year’s celebrations on December 31, 1923 while they were living in the Hotel Manolis in the Post Office Square — all very standard stuff, much drinking and singing of Auld Lang Syne after midnight,” he said.

David Chandler, an American historian who spent two Christmas holidays here in the early 1960s, said Christmas celebrations then were low-key. They mainly took place in the privacy of expat apartments. The glitzy cheer so common around Phnom Penh today was absent then. 

“The town didn’t take Christmas very seriously,” Chandler said. In the early1970s, Christmas was much like any other day, remembers Donald Jameson, who was here during that time as a US diplomat. 

“Since most [local Christians] were Vietnamese, it was very subdued given the strong anti-Vietnamese bias at that time,” he added. 

Of course, during the Khmer Rouge period (1975-79) all religious celebrations were banned, including Christmas. But even afterwards, during the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea regime, Christmas celebrations remained uncommon. 

“In the '80s, Christmas was virtually non-existent except for discreet celebrations among the expats and discreet religious services within the very small Cambodian Christian community,” remembered Eva Mysliwiec, who spent over two decades here with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organisation. “It’s not really something that made an impression on me or stuck in my mind.” 

Phnom Penh’s Christmas spirit began its gradual snowball towards what it is today near the end of the Cold War, when Cambodia began opening up to outsiders after almost two decades of isolation and gradually became flooded with Westerners.

Sister Denise Coghlan, who came to Phnom Penh in 1990 with the Catholic Church, was one of them.

Two days before the Australian nun’s first Christmas in the Kingdom in 1990, the Catholics received good tidings: the government was going to allow them to hold Christmas mass in their original church, located near the airport.

Though the church had been built by Catholics prior to the Khmer Rouge, it had been converted into a military hospital by the current government. The Catholics had been requesting that it be handed back to them for years.

“That was a very significant time, because it was the first time the Catholic Church was allowed to have Christmas mass in our own church,” she explained. Services had previously been held in a room at the Samaki Hotel (now Raffles Hotel Le Royal) and a priest’s backyard. 

After the good news, Coghlan and others rushed to transform the hospital back into a church, decorating the walls, setting up an altar and preparing a scene of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in Bethlehem. 

The mass was a marked success, remembers Coghlan. Bishop Emile Destombes, a priest who had been in Phnom Penh when the city fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and took refuge in the French Embassy, led a service of more than 200 people. After, they all ate a lunch of chicken curry.

Others around during the tumultuous 1990s cannot recall much festivity in those years. Michael Hayes, who founded the Phnom Penh Post in 1992, remembers the Christmas spirit taking a backseat to violence and politics. 

“I had a joke in the newsroom then,” he said this week at a riverside watering hole. “I used to say that we received more death threats then Christmas cards.” 

Mike Hsu, the owner of Sharky Bar, who has lived in the city since 1996, said it was only recently that the Christmas spirit had finally take hold.

He said there was very little signs of Christmas around when he arrived.

“No signs that said ‘Merry Christmas’. No Santa Clauses.” Anything Christmas-related, Hsu said, could for the most part only be found in the major hotels or at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

Hsu marks the period around 2007 and 2008 as the point where the “Christmas-isation” of Phnom Penh really began.  

“What’s striking to me is that it’s the Khmer stores too ... It’s sort of amazing to me because Christmas is not in their culture, but they like it. A lot of Western influence has rubbed off on local Khmers,” he said. 

“Now there are dozens of stores selling Christmas novelties,” he added.

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