By M. Garlinda Burton
The 2014 Advent season is particularly challenging for many of us who are dismayed and, yes, even angry about the seemingly widening chasm between people of different races and cultures in the United States and around the world.
At this writing, the airwaves and the streets are aflame because police officers in at least three U.S. cities have shot or choked three Black males (one of them 12 years old) to death. The police have been deemed by the legal system—at least for now—as justified in those killings.
As this piece is being edited, news has come from Syria that a 22-year-old woman apparently killed herself rather than let her self be captured, tortured and enslaved by members of the terrorist group ISIS.
And, for the most part, the United Methodist Church as a whole has been silent on these issues—particularly and most palpably silent about what the God we serve, and the Prince of Peace we celebrate, would have us say and do in these moments.
But there are some in our Christian community who are calling for us to remember and to embrace this Advent season as a reminder that, though we come from different places, hail from diverse cultures, and may mark the season in various ways, we are yet the Body of Christ. We gather with friends, relatives, community, and church families during this time in hope, joy, love, and—yes—peace to remind ourselves that Christ has come and called us to repair, reclaim, reconnect, re-create, and repent.
In our diverse and collective ways, our Methodist celebrations around the world are not merely festivals; rather, they are a clarion call for us to show the world the ways that lead to God’s peace and the upbuilding of God’s peaceable kin-dom.
As we recall and share how we celebrate this season in our respective contexts, let us also recall that, in all ways, this holy season is really about letting the Christ-light outside the darkness of sin and separation that appears to be winning for now, but which can never overcome the Light that emboldens us.
Growing up in her native Kinshasa, in the Democratic of the Congo, Pauline Shongo recalls greeting her neighbors with, Joyeux Noel, as she and her family hurried to their annual Christmas Eve worship and Christmas drama. “We spend most of the night at church, then go home late for a large meal with our neighbors,” recalls Shongo, now serving as a United Methodist missionary in Brazil.
While in Brazil, Shongo will likely enjoy a summer meal, says the Rev. Jefferson Furtado, a licensed local pastor who is a native of that Latin American country. “Christmas is in the summer, so we often have foods for warm weather, and many families have a Christmas churrasco (barbecue) and sometimes watch fireworks,” explains Furtado, who is a pursuing ordination as an elder and serving as pastor of Neely’s Bend UMC in Nashville. In some regions the feast starts on Christmas Eve at about 9 p.m., while other Brazilians eat at midnight, serving the children first because they must quickly get to sleep if Papai Noel is to bring them gifts.
Across the miles in Norway, the Rev. Øyvind Helliesen and other United Methodists will attend worship service on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and then they will gather with their families for a traditional meal of “pork rib, lamb rib, or cod.” Helliesen, a district superintendent in Fredrikstad in eastern Norway, will likely spend Christmas day quietly, starting with morning worship and, later, at a family party, where relatives will wish one another God Jul.
For the Rev. Franklin Guerrero, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, many of his childhood traditions mirrored that of other Latin/Caribbean nations, with emphasis placed on Advent and the Epiphany, when gifts are given to children on Three Kings Day on Jan. 6. Unique to his homeland, however, is the practice of angelito (“little angel”), where friends, family, and neighbors exchange small gifs during the Advent season in a manner similar to “secret Santa,” recalls Guerrero, director of major gifts for USA for UNHCR, a United Nations relief agency.
Gift giving in this tradition echoes the gifts given by Jesus by the Magi, he adds. “It is not about money or material rewards, but giving and receiving and building community.”
Another Dominican tradition is based on a folkloric figure, Vieja Belen (“old lady of Bethlehem”), who was believed to bring gifts to poor children on the Sunday after Epiphany. In reality, it allows poor parents more time to buy gifts for their children, explains Guerrero, an ordained elder in the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.
For Pong Javier, a Filipino American, and his extended family in the Philippines, “Christmas is the longest and the merriest festival. The first signs of festivity appear when the last three letters of month become ‘-ber’ as in September,” he says.
“In Filipino neighborhoods around the world streets and homes are decorated with lights and a traditional star-shaped lanterns made of bamboo and color paper, lit to shine and glitter from windows and storefronts, and, of course, atop Christmas trees,” says Javier, a member of Cosmopolitan UMC in Melrose Park, Ill., and president of the National Association of Filipino United Methodists.
During Advent, Christians organize Simbang Gabi, an evening worship service of prayer and singing, followed by traditional foods. Also, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, individuals and groups go caroling in homes or institutions to ask for monetary contributions, usually for a cause. Children carol or simply pay surprise visits to relatives in the neighborhood, kissing the hands of the elders as a gesture of blessing, in exchange for gifts of money and toys.
As in other cultures, Christmas Eve or Noche Buena service is the high point of the season. The official end of the celebrations is Jan. 6, the Feast of the Magi.
Hortense Tyrell grew up in Saint Ann’s Parish in rural Jamaica. As a youth, she and other teens would gather first at her home congregation, Boroughbridge Methodist Church, about a week before Christmas, then go door to door singing Christmas carols. Today, on Christmas Eve, children accompany their parents to Grand Market, where they purchase gifts to exchange.
“We typically do not have chimneys in Jamaica, so as children, we believed that Santa entered the house through the keyhole. Also, in my home, we did not hang stockings; we’d put our hats and caps on chairs for Santa to place our gifts in,” she remembers.
“On Christmas morning, families go to church and then gather for dinner at a designated family home. Christmas dinner may include ham, roast chicken, and rice and peas. Christmas cake or pudding (a heavy, black fruitcake) and homemade sorrel drink (a deep red beverage made from the sepals of the sorrel plant) are staples at the Jamaican Christmas table,” says Tyrell, a long-time employee of United Methodist Women in New York.
The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, is a public holiday, and the merrymaking continues with “community fairs, visits, more eating, dominos, card games, and dancing,” she adds.
At Korean United Methodist Church of Santa Clara Valley, layman Douglas Kay and his family and friends, “celebrate this season in ways similar to other Western churches,” he says.
This year, the worship committee at the San Jose, Calif., church has decorated a “giving tree” with baskets and names; each family picks a name and will give a gift—anonymously—to people in need, according to Kay, who is in the process of becoming a United Methodist home missioner
As the year ends, however, Kay says “members of the church will celebrate together with a community meals and intergenerational games from the Korean tradition, including Yoot (a board game) and Jegichagi (players try to keep a ball of feathers in the air using only legs and feet).”
In rural Zimbabwe, Christmas is a time for family gatherings, long breaks from school and plenty of church celebrations—much like the rest of the world, according to the Rev. Tauri Emmanuel Maforo, pastor of the Murombezi Circuit in Western Zimbabwe.
“People in the community exchange gifts and attend parties,” he adds.
A favorite memory from childhood is the company-style suppers of rice and chicken, which was reserved for special days like Christmas, Maforo recalls.
“When a son-in-law visits at Christmas, the in-laws prepare a chicken. In return, the son-in-law buys a goat, and there is a great feast.”
Also, children look forward to receiving gifts of new clothing, which they typically wear to Christmas Day worship service, adds Maforo, who also serves as a communications consultant for United Methodist Communications.
For Thomas Kemper, a layman from Germany, the songs of the Advent season have particular meaning. “Probably every church in Germany, on the first Sunday of Advent, sings Macht hoch die Tür (“Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates,” by Georg Weisel, No. 213 in The United Methodist Hymnal), a German hymn written in 1623 during the 30 Year’s War (1618-1648).
“It was a terrible time for the civilians, as so many armies went back and forth through Europe making their living by exploiting poor peasants,” recalls Kemper, who is general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries in New York.
“Some of the deepest spiritual hymns came out of this period, and this one—based on Psalm 24—talks about the king, Jesus, entering the world, the country, the city and my own heart (each verse getting more personal).
“What a word of hope in the midst of disaster and so much tragedy. It was true then, and it is still true today. And every Advent, as I sing, I am reminded that the Gospel is relevant and true. Jesus still comes to change the world,” he adds.
This Christmas season, Muriel Nelson, a laywoman from Liberia, will celebrate in Detroit with her sons, her sister, and her sister’s children, while her husband continues his pastoral work thousands of miles away in Monrovia. She had planned to return home after earning her master’s degree earlier this year from Wesley Theological School in Washington, but the outbreak of ebola left her and her children stranded in the United States.
Still, she remembers with fondness the season’s celebration in her home nation. “People decorate and dress up. Fiesta is held all over the place bringing families and friends together from far and near; meals, drums, dances, and laughter fill the air,” Nelson says, who volunteers as a children’s ministry leader at a church in Detroit.
“Liberian United Methodists also sponsor an annual, weeklong Christmas camp, which brings together 175 to 300 young people from across the nation for a time of Bible study and making friends,” she says. During camp, the youth study the word of God and conduct a community service project within the host community.
Youth and children play a critical role in congregation celebrations, too, says Nelson, from Christmas pageants to caroling in local hospitals and homes. “Christmas provides an opportunity for the church to recognize and celebrate the gifts and graces of the children,” Nelson adds.
On the Sunday before Christmas, the Nelson’s home congregation, Stephen Trowen Nagbe United Methodist Church, will have morning worship, followed by a fellowship meal for the entire congregation. During this fellowship meal, baskets and other gifts are given to the physically challenged, the aged and the little children.
“The congregation is taught that God gave the greatest gift at Christmas, and as Christians, we need to be generous and bless others.”
GCORR invites you to post a tradition—and photos—from your family, church or cultural tradition, and tell us why it is meaningful. We want to hear from United Methodists everywhere so that we are learning and celebrating Christ’s coming as a more whole, connected Body of Christ. Blessed Advent to you!
Explore your Faith this Season
Local church pastors and Christian educators:
- Post a daily Advent reading on your church’s website and invite members and friends to share.
- Give a gift as a congregation to a cause or organization working for peace and non-violence, cross-cultural understanding and justice in your community. And make a commitment to engage that organization as a learning or ministry partner in the coming year.
- Select a nursing home, children’s home, or other care facility serving low-income clients and go caroling there. Meet the staff and residents and, again, make a connection that you can maintain throughout the year.
- Make a connection with a pastor or Christian educator at a church of another racial-ethnic make-up and have lunch with them. Discuss ways to connect in the coming year for a joint summer mission project, a joint picnic and worship, or a joint Advent study in 2015.
Bishops, superintendents and directors of connectional ministries:
- Issue a pastoral letter for the season to all congregations, reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s coming during these troubled times. Laypeople and pastors want to hear what church leaders have to say about pressing issues of the day.
- Invite congregations from your area to make an ornament that reflects their community or culture, and decorate your office tree with that ornament. Post a photo on your Facebook, website or newsletter page.
- Through your newsletter or website , share the official United Methodist stances on racial justice, peacemaking, being the church amid disagreement, etc., using The Book of Resolutions. Draw on particular statements pertaining to peace, reconciliation, justice and repentance, pointing to Jesus Christ, whose birth, death and resurrection offer hope for the world.
- Connect with Christian leaders of other cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds during this season. Invite them for an informal meal and ask, “How can we work together in the coming year to model courage, unity, and justice in our community?” Exchange ideas and follow up.