HCM CITY (Viet Nam News/ANN) – Christmas has forever been my favorite time of the year. Bustling HCM City, dazzling Christmas banners and sparkling lights always give me so much joy during this festive season.
To be honest, I often take Christmas for granted. But it can be celebrated by everyone, young and old, men and women, religious or not. Recently, I saw an article in the New York Times which mentioned that “religious elements of Christmas are emphasized less now than they were in the past”.
For the first time, I began to think beyond how people, in general, view Christmas, but how Catholics, particularly in HCM City, celebrate it, and how people like me, a Buddhist, enjoy this as a cultural event. Vietnam has four main belief groups, including folk religion, Buddhism, Catholicism, Caodaism, and other minor belief groups.
Hoang Diep, 31, a Catholic, told me that Catholic families and churches often set up a nativity scene or a mini replica of the birthplace of Jesus Christ in December. “This is probably one of the most recognizable symbols of Christmas and traditions that we carry out,” she said.
“Besides representing the birth of baby Jesus, the nativity also symbolizes a new life that will come to us, a change which offers us the opportunity to ‘be born again’ in love and wisdom,” Diep added.
Diep’s younger brother, Hung Long, said that Christmas trees with lights remind them that “Jesus is the light of the world, the light of the soul that drives away the darkness of animosity and makes room for forgiveness”.
Though Diep’s and Long’s answers were fascinating, I conducted further research and discovered that the nativity and Christmas tree complement each other in terms of energy.
They can bring families and places a reflection of the light and tenderness of God to help everyone experience the birth of Jesus, according to Pope Francis, the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State.
Diep emphasized that during this time of the year it is necessary for Catholics to confess as a way to clean their souls and get ready for the arrival of Jesus.
“I’m also excited to join the Midnight Mass to watch the nativity play and listen to Christmas music,” she added. “Though I must admit the religious elements of Christmas are not strictly followed by the younger generations as they used to be, I’m glad to be a part of the Catholic community because I can enjoy both the religious and cultural beauty of this event.”
Having a chat with Diep and her brother was insightful to me since I see the event as a time for lights, smiles, family and merriment with communities around the world. But for Christians in general and Catholics in particular, it holds significance.
To Catholics, every activity in the month of December has a deeper meaning, reflecting their beliefs and goodwill towards mankind.
To my friends and I who are not Catholic (the main Christian religion in Vietnam), we are very much filled with the holiday spirit and embrace Christmas as a cultural festival.
Despite the fact that Buddhism is dominant and that Catholics form only a minority, Christmas remains one of the most significant religious festivals and is celebrated with much fanfare by all religious communities as a cultural event.
My friends and I agree that Christmas in HCM City is not as big of a deal here as it is in other parts of the world, but they have their own way to make the holiday special.
“Christmas shopping and gift exchanges are my things! Who can ignore all the dazzling banners which say ‘SALES’ in shopping centers like Takashimaya and Vincom,” Quynh Anh, 21, said.
“I understand that gift exchange is not really a Vietnamese thing, but I do it every year as I enjoy how happy my loved ones get when they receive a present,” she said, adding that gift sharing has become the most anticipated activity among her close friends.
“Fun fact! The hashtag #sharingiscaring is widely popular on social media during this time of the year,” she said.
Duc Tuan, 26, another friend of mine, enjoys the glorious log cakes which are only available during Christmas.
“My family always shares a double chocolate log cake as we finish our Christmas dinner. The taste, of course, is no different to that of a normal cake. However, it spices up our night and makes the atmosphere so sweet and festive,” Tuan said, adding that his family’s sweet tooth plays a crucial role here.
Quang Nam, 27, told me: “I never knew how family-oriented this holiday is until I arrived in London a day before Christmas four years ago.”
“My family practices Vietnamese folk religion. We usually visit tourism spots where the ‘decoration game’ is strong during December and we take festive photos. I’m sure many Vietnamese families celebrate Christmas similarly to us. Christmas time tends to bring masses of congestion to the already bustling center of HCM City,” he said.
“However, as I walked alone on empty streets in London and glimpsed through the windows, seeing how families gathered for a feast on Christmas Eve and opened boxes of presents on Christmas Day, I realized the essence of this event. It felt so warm, and, of course, I missed my family a lot,” Nam said.
With Dung Nguyen, 41, a Buddhist, it is not necessary to be a Catholic to visit church this time of year.
“I go to Sai Gon Notre Dame Cathedral once every December to pray for peace for myself, friends, family, and everyone. Since I’m not a Catholic, I do not eat sacramental bread or wine, but sing along with songs when I can and listen to valuable life lessons taught by the priest,” she said.
“How can praying for peace be wrong, right?” she said.
My friends’ stories got me thinking that the true beauty of Christmas lies in family gatherings, reunions with friends, the year in review, and getting ready for the New Year ahead.
Christmas celebration in its essence is not all that different among people of other religions and there is no right and wrong way to celebrate. As long as it is done with joy, celebrating it in a religious or cultural way will bring about memorable moments.
Vietnam is indeed a dynamic country and religious diversity and freedom of religion here have allowed Vietnamese to celebrate multiple festivals yearly.
Though it may appear that Vietnamese are taking advantage of religious holidays to have fun, I believe each occasion has different moral values that are true to human beings, regardless of their religious beliefs.
In other words, the various festivals from different religions are occasions for everyone to celebrate what he or she embraces.
We here in Vietnam celebrate Christmas, a Christian festival embraced by many Catholic believers and non-Christians across the country.
As another example, consider the Buddhist Vu Lan Festival, which falls on the seventh full moon of the lunar calendar when worshippers offer prayers to their ancestors and to Buddha.
While devout Buddhists regard this in a serious way, locals in general tend to think of Vu Lan Festival as a Vietnamese version of Mother’s Day, when they show their gratitude towards their mothers.
On this day, followers of other religions, including myself and my friends, either flock to the pagodas for the prayer ceremony or buy presents for our beloved mothers.
At the prayer ceremony, attendees whose mothers are alive wear red roses, while white roses are for those whose mothers have passed away.
The Vu Lan Festival, along with Christmas, is a long-lasting, charming part of local culture.
Professor Do Quang Hung, an expert in religious study, said that festivals in all nations are a form of communal cultural activity, made on the basis of different beliefs and religions.
If a festival is perceived as meaningful by everyone, it will be embraced. If not, it will be abandoned.
All in all, I am glad to be a part of the fun-loving, dynamic and sociable Vietnamese community. After Christmas, we will celebrate our Tet (Lunar New Year) in early February and even more festivals later in 2019.
For now, we wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
By An Phuong