Christmas 2007 is a Christmas I will likely never forget. Instead of snow, Christmas decorations, trees, lights and cookies, there were mud houses, warm welcomes, banana trees, no electricity, and crepe-like sweets. Philip and I went with my friend Asheesh to visit his home village of Jolchatro in the Modhupur district of Bangladesh. His home, like all homes in the area, is a mud structure, without electricity and his father is a farmer. These poor, tribal farmers, are one of the few groups of Christians in Bangladesh, and hence, they are one of the few people to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas at Jolchatro had a distinctly Mandi touch. None of the traditional Christmas carols are sung, and the Christmas traditions are not similar to anything I have experienced before. We were joined by a group of Japanese from Dhaka, who were all living in Bangladesh and very proficient in their Bengali. We spent a few minutes learning Mandi greetings and sentences, while drinking tea and eating a snack. Then we went for a walk before returning only a mere hour later to eat a wonderful dinner prepared by Asheesh’s mother. After dinner late on Christmas eve, we went and were joined by a few more men and women and with a couple drums our group of 15 walked to a neighbouring house.
So began a tradition, which I thoroughly enjoyed. To call people into community, we started singing and dancing in the courtyard of the first house. And as the music rose, the family inside finished preparations, came out and joined the circle, after another song or two, we all moved on to the next house; and so again began the singing and dancing, until we could no longer fit into the courtyards of these tiny mud dwellings.
Singing and dancing was an experience of complete joy, here in the middle of impoverished Bangladesh. And dancing not individually but together, stepping in unison as we slowly twirled in a circle, letting our voices raise to heaven. This display of joy, happiness, and unity brought tears of joy to my eyes. These people, living in poverty we can hardly imagine, are always so seemingly happy, so joyful, and so ready for a party. They are ready to sing, to dance and to enjoy life to the fullest especially at this time of Christmas.
As midnight approached the large crowd dispersed and everyone changed into their Christmas finery and walked to Jolchatro Mission for midnight Mass. Midnight Mass was beautiful, candles lit up the room as the electricity in the room died and the room was plunged into a glorious half-light as people sang joyous songs to celebrate Christmas.
The following day, Christmas day, began a slow morning, very typical of village life in Bangladesh. And after much visiting and sitting in the warmth of the sun looking over the fields and banana trees. We went for lunch at another house. The meal consisted of meat, a rarity in poor families around the world, and not just meat, but pork. Pork is not eaten by Muslims and so it is virtually impossible to find in Bangladesh, and these rural Mandi villages are the only places I ever have the joy of eating pork. But on this day, the pork proved a little bit too much for me! For in celebration of Christmas day, they had cooked three different kinds of pork curries. These were eaten with everyone’s favourite food group, rice. Vegetables were nowhere to be found on the menu. By late afternoon, Philip and I were on our way back to Mymensingh in an overcrowded bus, and crashed early, neither of us particularly wanting dinner.
Christmas in Jolchatro was an experience not to be forgotten. It was not in any manner a stereotypical Christmas. But it was a Christmas filled with happiness, joy, dancing and new experiences. Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year (from Nepal)!