Tradition and spirituality grace Bangladesh at Christmas

Christmas is a time of relaxation and joy for Susmita Ruga, a Catholic from the Garo tribe of predominantly indigenous Mymensingh Diocese in northeast Bangladesh.

Jan 11, 2019

By Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario
Christmas is a time of relaxation and joy for Susmita Ruga, a Catholic from the Garo tribe of predominantly indigenous Mymensingh Diocese in northeast Bangladesh.

The Garo are a matrilineal minority in the Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya as well as in Bangladesh, in which children take the surnames of their mothers.

Susmita, a university graduate based in Mymensingh city, gets a week or so break from her studies during the Christmas period.

“I go home and join my family and friends in decorating the church and our home,” said Susmita. “We practise and participate in our choir, prayer and carolling.”

Besides a spiritual renewal for the faithful, Christmas boosts fraternity among Garo villagers, she said.

Every village hosts a traditional get-together in one house, where a cultural programme and shared meal strengthens community bonds. At both tribal and religious festivals, pork and a rice beer called Chu is consumed.

“Chu consumption is purely traditional for Garo people, so no one is addicted and no unpleasant incident occurs. Garo people respect their culture and traditions more than their lives,” Susmita said.

During festivals, most Garo women wear dokmanda (a traditional Garo dress) and both men and women use ethnic ornaments, including a headdress made of bird feathers.

Garo, who are ethnically mongoloid, make up the majority of the more than 80,000 Catholics in Mymensingh Diocese.

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Christians make up less than half a per cent of the country’s more than 160 million people.

Most of the estimated 600,000 Christians are Catholics, spread over eight Catholic dioceses. Apart from majority Bengali Christians, nearly half of the country’s Christians hail from various ethnic minority groups such as the Garo.

Christmas has an added significance for Bangladeshi Christians as it is the only Christian feast that enjoys a public holiday. It is popular with all faiths and ethnic groups.

The capital, Dhaka, is home to the largest number of Christians, both Bengali and indigenous peoples.

Most moved to the bustling city from the provinces to study, find jobs or engage in business.

However, during the Christmas holidays, many head back to their provinces to celebrate with family and friends.

Hotels, restaurants and convention centres in Dhaka hold numerous Christmas parties that attract both Bangladeshis and foreigners, including state officials and members of the diplomatic community.

Christian groups organise Christmas fairs, carol competitions and other events. In cities and villages alike, Christians put up decorations and lights, and there are midnight Masses on Christmas Eve.

Fr Paul Gomes, vicar-general of Rajshahi Diocese, said that seasonal reunions and festivities lift people’s spirits.

“Christmas means putting behind the old and welcoming the new,” he said. “People wear new clothes, prepare good food and share their joy with others.”

Oblate Bishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze of Sylhet says Christmas festivities help many poor local people, including ethnic Khasia Catholics and tea plantation workers, to forget their pain and reinvigorate themselves.
“Poor Christians put aside their life of suffering to celebrate the birth of Jesus,” said Bishop D’Cruze.

A shortage of priests means that about 30 per cent of Catholics would not be able to attend a Mass on Christmas Day, so they would have special prayers instead, the bishop added.

To help cope with the winter chill, blankets were distributed.

For Catholics in Chittagong Archdiocese, Christmas is overlapped with preparations for the celebration of 500 years since the arrival of the Catholic faith in what was then East Bengal, now Bangladesh.

This jubilee will be a special occasion to renew faith in Christ by thanking the early missionaries and others who were martyred, said Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chittagong.

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