The simple Christmas celebrations among the tribal people of a Buddhist nation touch the heart of a Columban Sister.
I will never forget my first Christmas among the Kachin tribal people of northern Myanmar. I arrived in Myitkyina earlier in the year, and before I realized it, the Advent season of preparation for Christmas had arrived.
Maybe it was because the commercialized build-up to our great feast in the Western world was totally absent in this little corner of the world. Christmas was just around the corner, but nowhere was there any outward sign designed to urge us to drink more, eat more and spend more.
Myanmar is a Buddhist country, of course, but there are many Catholics in the area where I live and work. The Sisters with whom I was living at the time were the only ones in the whole area who put up a few tiny decorations, which they did three days before Christmas.
The only other decoration came from the catechetical school students, who put a little crib in their chapel.
But there was no crib in the convent, so I asked the Sisters if I could prepare a little crib and, of course, they said I could.
With the help of some of the students, I built a little stable out of bamboo and grass and placed the Baby Jesus figurine—this one had a broken arm—in the crib.
There was no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds or kings, no animals to fill out the crib—only Jesus lying all alone on his bed of grass.
At first, I felt sad about the crib we had made. The more I prayed and reflected on what lay before me, however, the more I discovered within this simple scene the real meaning of Christmas.
This Jesus with a broken arm lying alone in the cold stable was an orphan with no one to care for him and hold him close. There were no animals whose breath might alleviate the awful cold.
I could not help but ask myself if he was any different from so many people in our world today, particularly children, who are deprived of the necessities of life and the warmth of someone to love them.
Here in the hills of Myanmar, a place rich in natural resources, my heart aches to see children without warm clothes during the cold winter months and wearing only little rubber slippers on their feet. And their homes are just like the one that we made for Baby Jesus—constructed of bamboo and grass and full of holes that let the cold winter wind pass in and out.
The celebration of Christmas in northern Myanmar is very simple. There is no big meal at home. Instead, all the Christians gather in the village square, bringing whatever food they can afford.
After a program of songs and dances, each family opens gifts and shares them with the others who have gathered. Then together the families enjoy their Christmas meal. Usually, there are games for the children and little gifts of candy and fruit.
Looked at from a commercial point of view, this celebration lacks all that we are so cleverly told is necessary for our Christmas to be full of joy and happiness.
Having now spent my second Christmas in this far-away land, however, I can truly say that sharing in the simple joys of the people, secure in the knowledge that God is truly in our midst in all his poverty, gives me more joy than all the tinsel and glitter that can so easily dazzle our eyes at Christmas.
Columban Sister Tammy Saberon of the Philippines was a missionary in Hong Kong and the Philippines before becoming the first Columban Sister to return to Myanmar.