Rich tapestry of Christmas traditions


People have come up with their own ways to keep Santa’s magic alive in the tropics. — Filepics

A guide to Eurasians’ celebration, filled with treasured ornaments, family recipes

CHRISTMAS, which coincides with the year-end holidays, brings with it a special kind of anticipation especially for those celebrating the season of merriment.

The festive occasion, commemorating the birth of Jesus, takes on unique expressions within families and communities.

StarMetro spoke with Selangor & Federal Territory Eurasian Association (Malaysia) president Sheila De Costa to learn more about the community’s cherished Christmas traditions.

Time for carolling

The carolling season is an important event much looked forward to by many Christian families as a sign that Christmas is around the corner.

De Costa said that back in her teenage years, carolling practice began in November, kickstarting a joyous whirlwind of house visits.

These were not simple doorstep group serenades as each stop was a mini-celebration, brimming with festive tunes, warm welcomes and a generous spread of food and drinks.

Christmas carolling is a chorus of happy, holiday cheer. — FilepicsChristmas carolling is a chorus of happy, holiday cheer. — Filepics

The shared laughter and singing soon spilled out beyond the houses, transforming carolling into a mobile party.

“There was a carnival-like atmosphere when carolers visited homes to sing, and travelled out of town by chartered buses,” said De Costa.

Every road was a stage, and every destination was a chorus of holiday cheer, she said.

Nativity set/crib

For Christians, Christmas is not just about twinkling lights and festive cheer; it is a celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Thus it is common to find in Christian homes, especially the Catholics’, the nativity set, manger scene or crib prominently displayed as part of festive decorations.

The tradition of setting up a Christmas crib or nativity scene transcends generations and cultures.The tradition of setting up a Christmas crib or nativity scene transcends generations and cultures.

The nativity set is a depiction of the scene of Jesus’ birth in a manger, hence it is common to see a wood carving of the holy family taking centre stage.

The set features the infant Jesus in his mother Mary’s arms with his father Joseph as well as the Three Wise Men, angels, shepherds and even a donkey or camel, painting the perfect picture of nativity.

Fruit cake

At the heart of every Eurasian Christmas feast, nestled among the roasts and fragrant curries, sits a jewel of a tradition – the fruit cake.

It is more than just a dessert because for many families it is a legacy passed down through generations – from one baker to another, with daughters and granddaughers holding secret recipes close to their heart.

Every family boasts a special recipe – a symphony of soaked dried fruits, predominantly raisins, plumped up in rum or brandy, tossed with nuts and spices to unleash magical flavours that dance on the tongue.

At the heart of every Eurasian Christmas feast is the fruit cake.At the heart of every Eurasian Christmas feast is the fruit cake.

Now, supermarket shelves, bakeries and hotel cafes are filled with mass-produced non-alcoholic fruit cakes.

De Costa said each Eurasian family would have its own home-baked fruit cake for guests and the family.

“Sometimes, the host might be disappointed when guests do not try the fruit cake which is baked with love and steeped in family tradition,” she said.

The fruit cake is not mere dessert. It acts as a conversation starter on its history and effort made to safeguard the family’s treasured recipe.

Christmas tree

For Eurasian families in Malaysia, a home seems lacklustre without a dazzling Christmas tree adorned with baubles, trims and ribbons that whisper stories of past celebrations and cherished memories.

De Costa shared a vivid picture of her childhood where Christmas mornings began with the ritual of unpacking glass ornaments, each one a fragile treasure passed down through generations.

The meticulous care extended beyond hanging the baubles on the tree.

Gifts are placed under the Christmas tree and to be unwrapped by family members on Dec 25. — Photos: YAP CHEE HONG, SHEILA SRI PRIYA and SHEELA CHANDRAN/The StarGifts are placed under the Christmas tree and to be unwrapped by family members on Dec 25. — Photos: YAP CHEE HONG, SHEILA SRI PRIYA and SHEELA CHANDRAN/The Star

After Christmas, each ornament is gently wrapped and tucked away until it is time again for it to weave its magic the next year.

“A lot of care is given when these ornaments are unpacked to be hung on the trees.

“Over the years, people have switched to plastic and wooden ornaments,” she said, noting that some Malaysians enjoy putting up a Christmas tree in their home for fun and because it looks pretty.

Christmas wreath

The wreath has transcended its religious roots to become a ubiquitous symbol of holiday cheer. Traditionally, the evergreen circle adorned with four candles represented Advent – the four weeks leading up to Christmas, with each candle lit on a subsequent Sunday.

Today, the wreath has blossomed into a versatile decorative element.

While some households still cherish the Advent tradition, many embrace the wreath for its aesthetic charm.

Doors proudly display a kaleidoscope of wreath designs, each reflecting the homeowner’s personality and festive flair with ribbons, bells, pine cones and flowers.

From classic red and green to whimsical pastel hues, the colour palette of Christmas wreaths knows no bounds.

Advent candles

As the crisp air of December carries whispers of approaching Christmas, a special tradition unfolds in Christian homes – Advent.

The four-week journey is marked by the gentle glow of candles, each one a beacon of a different virtue.

Lighting up advent candles marks a four-week journey, each one a beacon of different virtues.Lighting up advent candles marks a four-week journey, each one a beacon of different virtues.

The first week represents hope, followed by peace in the second, joy in the third and love in the final week.

The hope, peace and love weeks are represented by lighting up purple candles, while the week of joy is represented with a pink candle.

The purple hue signifies repentance. In the West, it also signifies royalty.

Festive decorations

Decorations during this period are more than just a collection of festive mementos gathering dust through the year, patiently waiting for the Christmas season to arrive.

They are not just ornaments and baubles but time capsules of Christmases past.

Holiday fun: A tea party at the home of Colin Isitor in Taman Bukit Indah, Kuala Lumpur, where his daughters’ friends joined in to put up Christmas decorations. — YAP CHEE HONG/The StarHoliday fun: A tea party at the home of Colin Isitor in Taman Bukit Indah, Kuala Lumpur, where his daughters’ friends joined in to put up Christmas decorations. — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

Ornaments in the festive trove can consist of snow balls, oven gloves, mugs, aprons and twinkle lights.

They are, sometimes, handed down from generations and families who take pride showcasing them during the Yuletide season.

Joy of giving

The magic of Christmas unfolds in many ways, from twinkling lights and families gathering for the festive feast but at its heart lies a ritual of gift-giving that sparks anticipation and joy.

De Costa said the idea of gifts originated from when the Three Wise Men visited baby Jesus in the manger and brought with them gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Over the centuries, the act of giving these precious gifts have evolved into joyful exchanges observed by many today.

“Gifts need not be something expensive. It is supposed to bring joy and happiness to the receiver and giver.

“Gifts are always placed under the tree and are opened on Christmas morning,” she said.

Stockings on mantel

Across the globe, Christmas unfolds in a kaleidoscope of traditions, each adding a unique brushstroke to the festive canvas.

While American Christmas movies might show overflowing stockings hanging by the mantelpiece, in Malaysia the custom is largely dependent on individual families.

Christmas stockings are a must for those who love dressing up their home during the festive season.Christmas stockings are a must for those who love dressing up their home during the festive season.

De Costa shares a glimpse into her own Christmas stockings, brimming with memories.

“My parents would place small gifts in custom-made stocking for the children.

“Since they practised that tradition, I did the same for my children,” she said, adding that the stocking also held smaller additional gifts for her guests and children besides the ones under the Christmas tree.

Santa Claus

While the image of Santa Claus squeezing down chimneys might dominate western Christmas lore, here in Malaysia the jolly character is often seen at parties and shopping centres.

Families celebrating Christmas in warmer climates with less chimney-centric architecture in their homes find their own ways to keep Santa’s magic alive.

Some families would convince relatives or even friends to dress up as Santa and bring presents to the children during gatherings.

For De Costa and her family, Christmas magic takes on a different form, one fuelled by imagination, familial love and playful secrecy.

“My father took it upon himself to leave presents below the trees, but the children never caught him placing the gifts as he was discreet,” she said.

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