A Christmas Story

23 December 2016

‘Tis the season for festivities and, of course, food. Three families in the Klang Valley tell us what Christmas means to them and how they celebrate it.
Christians in Malaysia celebrate Christmas similarly to other countries – simply minus the snow, but plus the rendang. Even without the traditional white Christmas as portrayed by Hallmark and Hollywood, the celebrations here include family and friends, as well as church services, carolling and gift-giving.

We speak to three families from three different segments of society, who share with us their Christmas rituals and traditions. 

Valentine Khoo and family
The Khoo family, when commemorating Christmas, shies away from the commercialism of civilisation. It’s customary to give gifts to one another for Christmas, but according to Amanda Khoo – the eldest daughter, who works in public relations – the family will not be giving gifts this year, or at least, not for each other, even though toys were the joys of their earlier Christmases when the kids were still kids.

This Christmas, the church that they go to in Kuala Lumpur has put up a Jesse tree, heavy with hanging tags. “Parishioners, like us, pick up tags and the tag will say, for instance, ‘Nine-year-old girl’, so then we go buy a gift for the nine-year-old girl, and the church gives it to the poor in the homes,” her mother, Monica says. “We figured that’s what we would do this year, as opposed to getting gifts for one another.”

Monica says that, with the church, they used to throw Christmas parties for underprivileged children, but now they charter buses and take them to Mydin instead, and buy them what they need, such as “socks or stationery”, and then treat them to a KFC meal and ice cream.

“We should all do a bit more for charity. We don’t do enough,” Monica says.

The Sarawakian family of five, who moved to Kuala Lumpur in ’93, returns to Kuching most years for Christmas. They have an early Christmas Eve dinner at Monica’s mother’s house – on the menu would be her famous chicken wings, plus ham, lamb and turkey – but to the Khoos, the most important part of Christmas is the midnight mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral. “We get really, really dressed up for mass, because it’s so important to us. It’s tradition; we’ve been doing it ever since we were kids,” says Monica.

Christmas at the Khoos in Kuching, aside from dinner at Monica’s mother’s house and midnight mass, typically involves visits to the village. “My mum is Bidayuh, and her family still lives in the kampung. They’re all Catholic, too, so everyone celebrates; it’s just festivities all around. We’d eat curries, lemang, and pulut, all the Bidayuh food,” Monica says. 

At the Khoos, gifts are wrapped in colourful paper; green wreaths decorate the house; and the glow of candles softens the warm nights.

According to Amanda, “aside from the obvious answer of celebrating Christ’s birthday, there’s a magical feeling to Christmas for me. What I like about Christmas is that more people do come together. If it wasn’t for the commercialisation of Christmas, maybe it would just be contained to celebrations with family whereas now we can share it with friends as well.”

Ganesan Arumugam and family
Ganesan Arumugam, his wife Daevy, and their three children live in a low-cost, high-rise flat in Kota Damansara. The paint in the PPR (Program Perumahan Rakyat, or People’s Housing Programme) unit is peeling; it’s mostly bare, save for a few chairs strewn in the living room, and a small television set. There aren’t many overt signs of yuletide cheer at home, but a painting of The Last Supper hangs on the wall, along with bronze and gold medals that the children have won from sport events at school, and a green wreath spelling out the word “Christmas”.

Theirs will be a more modest Christmas celebration, a marker of lives lived on the margins. They will go to church in the morning – where the children will receive gifts such as pencils and watercolour for school – but the rest of the day will be spent at home with a simple meal.

“We don’t go anywhere for Christmas, except church. I have few friends, anyway. We’ll stay home to be with each other,” Ganesan says.

Ganesan and Daevy married in 2000, and in 2001, was pregnant with their first daughter, Shalini, who will be entering the fourth form in the new year. What does she want to be when she grows up, we ask. She wants simply to work, she answers.

Shalini acts as a translator for some parts of our conversations with her parents, who speak mostly Tamil and some Malay. For some time now, Ganesan has not been able to work to support the family; he used to be a security guard, patrolling the dozens of floors of the Kota Damansara PPR, but he contracted tuberculosis, which has since spread to the bones in his right leg. Daevy, who works as a cleaner six days a week, is the sole breadwinner for the time being. 
“He couldn’t walk much before, but he’s better now. Sometimes the clinic gives us the medicine for free, but when it runs out, we have to buy it,” says Daevy. She tells us that Ganesan needs an operation, and soon.

According to Malay Mail Online, Sinar Project, which surveyed the residents of the Kota Damansara PPR, revealed that the median duration of stay at the flats was nine years. Ganesan and his family have lived there since 2005.

The family is assisted by Community Transformation Initiative (CTI), a non-profit organisation, to access government aid and social-medical care. It is currently working among the Kota Damansara PPR community, conducting various economic, educational and social empowerment programs – such as financial literacy classes and sewing lessons – which the family attends whenever they can. “After the classes, we go to church,” says Ganesan.

Shereen Lim and family
“Christmas to us, I’d like to believe, is a time of giving,” says Shereen Lim. The mother of three, who works in the insurance industry, tells a tale of a time when her family – which includes her three sons – prepared over three hundred presents, and passed them out to people who crossed their paths.

“Every Christmas, we carry a small sack, each of us – we’re like mini Santa Clauses, just minus the suits. They’re little, inexpensive gifts, but it makes everyone happy,” she says.

Christmas in the Subang Jaya household, where they’ve lived for the past 15 years, is a time of glad tidings and great joy as they come together to “celebrate the victory of Christ”. The church is a big part of their Christmas celebrations.

“We’re always available to serve during the Christmas season. We’re God’s Armour Bearers, as they call it, or ‘aide-de-camps’,” her son Adrian Lee says. As aides-de-camp, Adrian and his brothers Alex and Aaron Lee assist senior pastors or senior people of high rank in the Renewal Lutheran Church on Jalan 222, Petaling Jaya.

To Adrian, Christmas isn’t just a season of giving – it’s also a season of feast, and a time for family.

“Putting up the tree, that’s Aaron’s job. He starts the ball rolling on that one,” Shereen says of her youngest son. The tree goes up usually by late November or early December, though Shereen says that as Protestants, they don’t focus too much on beautiful trees or inviting lots of friends over to eat, because it is a day when “the focus should be on Christ”.

That said, she doesn’t forget the food, though. “There’s always turkey, and we can’t do away with rendang. We must have rendang, even for Christmas!” says Shereen. The boys help where they can, they say. “Yes, we help to eat,” Alex jests.

By Ng Su Ann

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