Despite current tensions over religious tolerance and diversity in Indonesia, the lives of many people continue as normal in many parts of the country, unaffected by political machinations at a national level. This week we hear from Rivaldy Pandie, with translation assistance from Albert Christian Soewongsono, about the nature of Christmas and New Year celebrations in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara.

Christmas and New Year celebrations are two things that people look forward to most during the year because they give special enthusiasm and joy to those who celebrate them. The euphoria surrounding Christmas and New Year are realised in many ways, such as the different kinds of Christmas accessories that decorate the city, Christmas trees in every house, fireworks parties for New Year and a street parade that involves a huge number of people. Christmas and New Year are enthusiastic festivities because these two events are universal and only celebrated once a year.

In many places, either in crowded and busy cities or in quiet and peaceful towns, Christmas and New Year mean time with family. In a small town like Kupang at midnight on 24 or 31 December, when the church bells start ringing to signify the end of the year, family members gather together to pray. After that, either the father or mother will preach about the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and everyone will sing, do a yearly reflection, and set up a plan for the upcoming year. At the end, usually the youngest of the family will stand up and kiss the elder ones in respect, as well as say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”.

The value of togetherness among Kupang residents is deeply felt prior to Christmas and New Year. Different from a normal visit or silahturami that is usually conducted just among family or close relatives, during Christmas and New year you can enter a random house (even if it belongs to someone you haven’t met before) just to wish your host a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, without the house owner questioning your religion, age or social status. They will offer a variety of cookies and drinks for all guests, and you can have as much as you want. You can also go and visit any other houses that you would like; sometimes, it can startle the house owner knowing that the guests are coming far afield. This simple tradition is a basis of belief that all people in this town are brothers and sisters, without forgetting the essence of Christmas itself which is to share love with others.

Besides its togetherness, Kupang has high tolerance among religious adherents, which is one of the most beautiful things to see during the Christmas and New Year period. While Christians worship in churches to commemorate the birth of the Messiah and the year changing, the youth of other religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism will join forces to help secure the churches from threats. At the end of the service, they will stand near the church gate just to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year with a smile to those who have finished their vespers.

So, how about non-religious events like New Year being celebrated here in Kupang? Like other places, fireworks that decorate the night sky are a must-do activity. Almost every household has fireworks during this time and many often spend a lot of money just to have them. The funny thing is, this can lead to competition among neighbours to have the best fireworks. On the other hand, most young adults choose to spend money on drinks, singing or parties with loud music until dawn. Some of them might tour around town by bike at high speed. Although this may look fun, this action is actually extremely dangerous because roads are very crowded at this time of year.

Regardless of this, nothing is more interesting than seeing children celebrating Christmas in their own way. If in the Western hemisphere kids celebrate Christmas by making snowmen, then children in some parts of Indonesia, including Kupang, prefer music. Musical instruments made of bamboo poles or carbide stone are pretty traditional and popular. Of these two instruments, carbide stone is the easiest to be used and generates the most powerful and noisy sounds. If you choose to play these instruments, you run the risk of being yelled at by others demanding you to stop, and what you have to do is run far away and be proud that you have done a good job (!).

Images of Christmas and New Year in Kupang are probably not much different from other places, but everything about joy is celebrated in unique ways. In addition, Kupang is a tropical area so instead of snow, we have rain followed by the blooming of the flamboyant flower a month before Christmas. This makes the town become more beautiful and alive with rich red colours.

However, what is it that really makes Christmas and New Year the most anticipated events for so many people? Well, most people might have childhood memories that reappear during Christmas and New Year, like of decorating the Christmas tree, the food, and also singing and worshipping together, or just sharing one’s time with each other. At the end of the day, whatever the reasons for celebrating, one thing is for sure: Christmas and New Year always bring peace and warmth to you and your loved ones that will make you want to spend time with them eternally.