As the festive season approaches, I am always reminded of my time in Timor Leste. A predominantly Catholic country, Christmas is a major celebration. However, it is not celebrated in the way you would normally think of when you think about Christmas. It’s not what you might expect, but the beauty of it has left a deep impression on me.
Once, a friend of mine in Malaysia told me that he wasn’t going to celebrate Christmas that year, that he wasn’t going to throw a big party because he was not feeling happy. When I asked him why, he replied that he did not get the bonus he was hoping for, and so there was not going to be much money. So, his plans for celebrating Christmas, and how to celebrate it, was hinged upon whether he had enough money that year.
But Timor Leste showed me a different picture. It is a poor country; half the population live on less than $1 a day. That’s very little.
“But that did not stop them from celebrating Christmas – in fact, it made it more meaningful.”
When I was there at Christmas in 2007, I saw people going to church for Christmas service and then sharing a bottle of Coke after that. There were about 10 young people sharing one bottle of Coke (I would soon find out that the contents were not actually Coke, but rice wine) and enjoying every sip. A party then ensued, with loads of laughter and merriment.
They also started throwing powder at each other, similar to the Holi traditions of the Indians. But it was just powder, which was either flour or talcum, and they just threw it at each other for fun. I did not understand why they did it, but I understood from them that you didn’t need money to celebrate Christmas. In fact, none of them had new clothes. In Malaysia, we often buy new baju for major festivals such as Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and Deepavali. Everything has to be new. Not just baju, even the curtains have to be new.
Christmas to them was about community. They partied and sang with a guitar, and the whole village could hear it through the cheap speakers. But it was great. The atmosphere was buzzing and alive and full of joy. There was no big feast or piles of gifts, but they had each other’s company. They were enjoying each other’s presence.
But that is what it is really about, isn’t it?
“Whether it is Christmas or Chinese New Year, it’s about family coming together and spending time with each other.”
But many get caught up with showing their material achievements during festive seasons – by wearing fancy clothes, pulling up in a shiny new car, or having new furniture in the house.
It is about relationships. And relationships can only be built with love, care, and time. These are things you cannot buy. In Timor Leste I witnessed how strong community bonds are forged. The people there knew their neighbours and friends well, and they would cook for each other and just do life together. Sadly, that is something we lack, especially when we live in the city.
When people have wealth, their focus tends to veer towards investing in money, instead of relationships. And when you do, you don’t find any reason to know your neighbours or get involved in your community. Everyone just remains within their own four walls. And eventually, your world grows smaller and smaller, and by the time you are 50 or 60, you will have your golf buddies or the equivalent, but they will also have their own lives.
Perhaps that is why we are fond of the idea of balik kampung. A return to the simpler things, where the people are more community-minded, friendlier, and warm. But we can still live in the city and have that kind of fulfilling life if we are truly invested in relationships and people.
I remember going back to Melaka to visit my grandmother, and when the family gathered, we never talked about money. Instead, we talked about who made the best samosa. And we would ask grandma to invite certain aunties because they made delicious snacks (there is a strong theme of food here!) It did not matter who was rich or who had less. It was about coming together to share what we had, and to enjoy a meal together.
“The essence of being human is relationships.”
It is not about the things we own and possess. As Christmas draws near, let us remember the true spirit of the celebration, and devote our time and energy to building and strengthening relationships with those around us.