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The author, who had a distinguished thirty-five-year career in the Foreign Service, is a member of the board of directors of this journal’s parent organization, American Diplomacy Publishers. This article appeared on Christmas Day 1994 in the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News and is republished by permission.
~ Ed.


Many Faces
by Francis Underhill 


IN OUR YEARS in the diplomatic service we spent nineteen Christmases in seven foreign countries. It was fascinating to see the variety in the way Christmas is celebrated, and how each country put its own cultural stamp on the holiday. In three countries only a small minority were Christians, yet this happiest of our religious holidays seemed to have a universal appeal. My first Christmas abroad was in Bilbao, Spain, in 1948. In this very conservative Basque city, Christmas was a subdued, solemn religious celebration of the Mass of Christ. Midnight services were held in all the churches on Christmas eve, and even the non-observing Catholics, usually men, made an exception and went to Mass that evening.

A considerable effort was made to suppress the commercial hoopla in the weeks prior to Christmas. There were stern editorials in the Gazeta del Norte, the principal Bilbao newspaper, condemning the increasingly popular Christmas tree. It was, the paper said, a pagan, Germanic custom out of place in any decent Christian home.

Christmas shopping in Spain was compressed into the two weeks between Christmas and January 6, El Dia dos Reyes. The Day of the Kings. Gifts were exchanged on this day celebrating the visit of the Magi and the gifts they brought to the infant Jesus. The children of our Spanish friends left shoes on the doorstep stuffed with hay for the horses of the Kings and found them in the morning full of small toys and an almond candy called turron. I recall no Santa Claus in the Spanish Christmas.

Our next Christmas abroad was in Indonesia. Jakarta, the capital, is a few degrees south of the equator, and December is as hot as July. Ninety-five percent of the people are Moslem. I expected, therefore, that Christmas would be celebrated only in the homes of the small foreign community with no public observance. I was wrong.

Islam in Indonesia is tolerant and ecumenical. Unlike the Middle East, if a Moslem wished to marry a Christian, there was no requirement for conversion. We knew an Indonesian family in which the husband was Christian and the wife was Moslem. Their daughters were raised as Christians and their sons as Moslems. Indonesians considered Christians to be ‘Of the Book,” sharing a common religious origin.

The Indonesians also loved holidays. (Our Dutch friends used to growl that the Indonesians would use any excuse to take a day off from work.) As in most Moslem countries, the Ascension to heaven of the prophet Mohammed was celebrated. But there was also a public holiday for the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. Christmas was a holiday, too. Indonesia had been a colony of the Netherlands for 300 years, and Dutch Christmas traditions were firmly established.

It began with a notice in the newspapers on Dec. 5th that Sinyokolas would be arriving from Spain the next day. A map of the route of his motorcade was also provided. Sinyokolas was the Indonesian rendition of the Dutch Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, and Dec. 6 was the Saint’s day. He arrived on a KLM plane and was driven in an open car with a motorcycle escort through the city. Sinyokolas was dressed in a flowing robe and a tall, peaked bishop’s miter.

Behind him rode his Moorish servant, Black Peter, in Spanish 17th century court dress holding a bundle of switches for bad children. Black Peter’s face was made truly black by a generous application of burnt cork. The streets were lined three deep with cheering Indonesian children and their parents as Sinyokolas’s car passed.

The newspapers reported the event the next day, and one editorial observed waspishly that in independent Indonesia perhaps it would be more appropriate if Sinyokolas’sservant were White Peter.

Christmas in devoutly Catholic Poland was more like Spain. It was primarily a religious holiday. Gifts were given, not on Epiphany, but on the Feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6. On the days before Christmas, the streets of Warsaw were full of people carrying large, live fish in water in plastic bags. The fish, usually carp, were kept bathtubs and washtubs for the principal dish of the Wigilia or Vigil dinner on Christmas Eve.

Under the table cloth were bits of hay straw said to commemorate the straw in the stable in Bethlehem, a custom with roots in Poland’s pre-Christian past. An empty place at the tab!e was kept for the stranger that might come unannounced. After dinner everyone we to church for the pasterka or Shepherd’s Mass.

The thing I remember most about Christmas in Poland is the variety and richness of the Polish Christmas carols—carols I had never heard before. Our carols, while familiar and well loved, are becoming hackneyed. There have been no good new ones in this century (unless you count White Christmas a carol). The Polish carols need to be translated and added to our Christmas musical fare.

In the Philippines, most of the tawdry aspects of our Christmas observance had been taken on with enthusiasm. The public announcement systems in hotels, supermarkets, and record stores along the streets began to blare Silent Night, White Christmas, and Winter Wonderland about the first of November.

The Filipinos had added one charming custom, however. They made large, colorful stars three or four feet across of bamboo and paper. They were hung with bright paper streamers, and each maker added his individual touch so there was an unbelievable variety. The markets where these stars were sold were a riot of color. The stars decorated the houses during the Christmas season, and were burned on Twelfth night.

The many faces of Christmas should not have surprised me. Christ’s birthday was not established in December until the fourth century. Our Christmas incorporates elements going back 2,000 years before Christ’s birth to ceremonies marking the winter solstice and the beginning the return of light. For the past 2,000 years, people all over the world have made this holiday their own, and added to it the richness and variety of the human experience.  

Francis Underhill is a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. His articles include The Rockefellers Come to Call (Fall 1998).

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