CHRISTIAN LIVING | Alex Barwick
Monday 21 December 2015
Tinsel laden trees, the exchanging of gifts and a large feast to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Christmas Day in Nepal looks a lot like it does in Australia these days but it’s seen rapid transformation over the past two decades. Unsurprisingly, the changes have paralleled the growth of Christianity and the influence of Western culture in this small country renowned for its mountains and Hindu tradition.
The result has been two fold – the opportunity for Christians to publicly celebrate their faith but also the growth of commercialism and mainstream adoption of December 25 as yet another religious holiday on the Nepali calendar.
Bimala Pokharel became a Christian in the 1990s and describes Christmas back then as a day celebrated quietly among believers so as to avoid potential persecution.
“There weren’t many visible signs of Christmas celebrations in the wider community,” recalls Bimala. “No stores sold Christmas trees and you’d hardly ever find a Christmas ornament hanging anywhere.”
Today in Kathmandu the big supermarkets and shopping malls have gone into Christmas decorating overdrive with their resident Santas dispensing candy canes to children passing by.
A Hindu Kingdom until 2006, Nepal’s government declared Christmas Day a national holiday less than a decade ago – making it one of 35 holidays celebrated in Nepal throughout 2015.
But for Nepali Christians like Bimala, Christmas is more than another reason for late night partying. Her husband, Arbin, is the Pastor of Cross-Way Community Church in Kathmandu and their family Christmas is centred on the church’s evangelistic program that aims to reach the wider community.
“Christmas is a great opportunity to share our faith and love of God with our non-Christian family members, neighbours and strangers through carol songs, skits, inviting them over for meals and giving gifts,” says Bimala. “It’s a big opportunity for outreach and evangelism in the cities and the villages. Our church sends people out on mission trips throughout Nepal to church plant.”
Bimala and her family also use Christmas as a time to give generously to those in need including the orphanage and foster kids connected with their church.
Their 12 year-old daughter Alyssa is very involved in the Sunday School at Cross-Way. After opening a present at home and reading the Bible with her family, it’s off to participate in the three-hour church service including a nativity play, singing, dancing and a Christmas feast.
Over in Pokhara, the country’s second largest city, Christmas Day unfolds in a similar way. Ruth Russell is an Australian doctor working with the International Nepal Fellowship (INF) in Pokhara. She well remembers the four-hour Christmas service last year followed by a lunch rubbing shoulders with over 1,000 people.
“About 1,200 people shared a meal of rice, lentils, vegies and chicken in the church grounds, which an amazing team cooked outside over fires in huge pots,” says Ruth. “It is the time to share informally with neighbours and work colleagues why we are celebrating – that it is Jesus’ birth and who he is, and why his birth is so important.”
It’s common to see many unfamiliar faces in church on Christmas Day, just as you would in Australia, as Christian Nepalis invite their neighbours and friends who aren’t Christian or don’t regularly attend.
Sadly, the ongoing economic blockade at the India/Nepal border as a result of opposition to the country’s new constitution will undoubtedly have an impact on Christmas this December.
“It’s crippling the country, which is still recovering from the earthquakes,” says Ruth. “Travel is difficult, goods are more expensive, and shortages are developing. People are using firewood on outside fires, and so those living in cities are more impacted than rural communities. This may mean a Christmas feast like normal is not possible this year – which would be very disappointing for everyone.”
Oliin Rai is a Christian Nepali working at Higher Ground Crafts in Kathmandu, a Christian-led social enterprise helping vulnerable women find meaningful employment. She agrees with Ruth.
“People are still traumatised from the earthquake so I think there will be a lack of excitement and joy in the celebrations,” says Oliin. “Shortages of both cooking fuel and transportation fuel due to the blockades will also impact Christmas and the shortages are also causing market inflation which gives people less purchasing power.”
Bimala is more optimistic, although she’s concerned outreach trips may be hampered by transport interruptions.
“We will celebrate the birth of Jesus and Christmas in a much more meaningful way thanking Jesus for His faithfulness, protection and love for us in the midst of these sufferings and struggles.”
Written by Alex Barwick, International Nepal Fellowship (INF) Australia. Alex lived in Nepal with her family for 12 months in 2014 and worked with INF. INF is a Christian mission serving Nepali people through health and development work.