Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve - Khmer Style

Despite the fact that I am miles away from Toronto the place that has been my home for years, it is here in Cambodia that I am enjoying many firsts. Tonight was my first Christmas Eve in Cambodia and what a joy it was to be part of a Khmer family who is celebrating Christmas. A few weeks ago an old and dear friend named Jaya invited me to join her family for their Christmas Eve celebrations. I couldn't resist another opportunity to learn about Khmer culture. Currently many in the expat community have gone away for Christmas but I think it is such a privilege to be here and to experience Christmas in a somewhat less commercialized form.

Ironically one of the local newspaper's was commenting about the fact that Christmas is a fun and exciting time, a chance to exchange gifts and hang out with friends but there is a need to be careful not to let consumerism and advertisements affect the way one thinks about what it means to be Cambodian. There is a concern that younger Cambodians are becoming too carried away with a festival that has nothing to do with their identity, but is only about buying new things. One perhaps could argue the same point in the West where focus is so much on the gifts and parties, that today's young generation have no idea of what the true meaning of Christmas is all about.

So tonight as I went to Jaya's place, I was curious to learn how Christmas is done here in a middle to upper class family. As soon as I entered the home, I noticed a big Christmas tree---just like we would have at home.

Jaya is young in her faith but none of her children are believers. Nonetheless, it was interesting to observe that as we were waiting for all the guests to arrive, one of the first songs to be played on the family Karoke video was 'Silent Night, Holy Night.'' This was interspersed with other family Christmas carols and songs that we would know in the west.

Jaya had invited one of her old pals, a man who is around 78 years old ---a widow just like herself, to come for dinner. I don't know his name but it doesn't matter as in Cambodian culture, you just call an older man ''Pou'' (pronounced " Poo'') which means ''uncle.'' Its fascinating to see that when an older person arrives, all the young people in the home get up and go towards him, placing their hands together in a prayer like fashion in a traditional Cambodian sampeah. It is a way of showing respect but that applies even to one like me who is a guest---the young people come up and politely greet you with the Sampeah. I can't help but think how North American kids have a lot to learn from Cambodian kids in terms of showing respect for elders. Unlike Western culture which often shows disregard to older people, here in Cambodian, the older you are the more revered you are---this is good to know considering that on this side of the pond, I am considered old although tonight Jaya's family thought I was in my 30s.
Jaya in the red top, with her family and ''Pou"' on the right hand side
So while we waited for the rest of Jaya's family members to arrive, the food started coming out. It was an interesting mix of Western and Asian foods---Jaya enjoys eating spaghetti and so that was on the menu tonight along side, Khmer curry beef, grilled chicken wings, BBQ crab and fish.

BBQuing in Cambodia is quite interesting in and of itself, Khmer people are very practical and so a BBQ pit was set up outside in front of the house on the main street---it doesn't matter if vehicles are driving buy, they just drive around the BBQ pit.

One of the highlights of my visit tonight was to sit and have a conversation with Jaya's older sister. She is unmarried but became a Christian 4 years ago through her boss. She now attends New Life Church here in he city---a church that we have come to appreciate and value given their strong discipleship program. But Jaya's sister works for another organization that is involved in helping trafficking victims and so we had much to talk about. We got onto the subject of living in the Pol Pot era and how Khmers deal with pain. Typically, the older Khmer generation does not like talking about the Khmer Rouge era because the memories and pain is still very much raw. Much of that pain today continues to be buried deep in people's hearts. Yet as I chatted with Jaya's sister it was encouraging to hear her say that when she became a Christian, she was no longer scared to sleep by herself or talk about her experiences during the Khmer Rouge. God has cultivated in her a heart to pray and she is praying away her fears and praying away her pain as she has seen and experienced God's healing over her heart and mind. Now she feels free to talk about the difficulties she endured under the Khmer Rouge. But she attributes all of this to God's healing work in her life. How appropriate it is that God has now placed her in an environment to care and encourage young women who themselves have lived through atrocities where their bodies have been ripped apart in unimaginable ways. God has a wonderful way of redeeming peoples trauma and pain and using them to comfort others. 

I can't help but think that if God healed the Khmer people of all the trauma they have experienced during the era of the Khmer Rouge, how much more of a profound impact would they have on ministering to the thousands of girls who are being sold. How much more could they be a blessing to these young women and be a living testimony that no matter the trauma, God is deeper, bigger and greater to bring about healing and restoration and transformation.

As the evening continued, a bit of Christmas commercialism came in with Jaya's son dressed up as Santa Claus handing out bars of chocolate and candy 

So Christmas Eve in Cambodia in some ways is not that much different than in the West---there is a lots of food, lots of eating and lots of laughs as family and friends gather together.

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