By Fr Alo Connaughton, Ballinacree, December 2020
For a lot of people 2020 will be the first time they won’t spend Christmas at home for many years. The same reason that has kept other people away is part of the reason why I am at home in December for the first time since 2007. My work with the Columbans has meant that I have spent Christmas in ten different countries. I won’t say ‘celebrated’ because in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China the days of Christmas are ordinary working days although the Christians always do their best to celebrate the occasion. A Catholic colleague in China who lectures in a university suspects that it is not purely by accident that often he finds himself scheduled to personally give exams on Christmas Day.
I’ll just mention one of those Christmases ‘away’ firstly because it made a deep impression on me but secondly because it gives me an excuse to use a good photo or two. Vietnamese students who attend the college where I worked in Bangkok often said to me ‘You should come to experience Christmas in our country. In 2018 I was finally able to manage it. The students of the Camillian Congregation welcomed me to their house in Ho Chi Minh city – many locals still prefer to call Saigon. During the days there I heard more than a few names of places that brought my mind back to news reports from the terrible years of the American war on Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. The war ended in about 1975 but the dying did not. An area of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia several times the size of Ireland is still treacherous with landmines which have killed an average of 1,000 people each year since the war finished. Even today babies are still being born with birth defects because of the use of Agent Orange as a chemical weapon.
Three things in particular made my visit memorable. The first was the extraordinary beauty of the Christmas lighting outside and inside the churches. In a strongly communist country the parishes wanted to proclaim the message of ‘light to the world’ in a very striking way. The churches in Saigon itself were beautiful but when the students took me on the 300km journey up to the historic town of Dalat the churches in the Catholic towns and villages along the road were really beautiful – something to raise the spirits.
A second thing that made the visit so enjoyable was the liveliness and joy at the religious ceremonies. The music was a mixture of traditional western Christmas Carols and Vietnamese compositions accompanied by a variety of instruments All the Christmas Masses I attended were followed by snacks for all, and often a lively concert or some form of entertainment.
Just one last thing about that memorable Christmas. About two weeks before I arrived the communist governor of Saigon had issued a order that no Christian symbols were to be displayed outside houses or on footpaths in the city. The Christians of all denominations got into action and between public protests and social media they forced to governor to withdraw the order. In years to come I suspect he will regard his original order as one of the big mistakes of his life. As I walked around the streets I came across scores of houses that had not only put up decorations and lights outside on the street but had searched out or manufactured simple but beautiful homemade cribs with images of Bethlehem scenes, the child Jesus, Mary and Joseph, oxen, donkeys – the lot. They were neither afraid nor ashamed to make it clear to the atheist authorities that for them a ‘meaningful’ Christmas’ meant a time for joy in the world because the Lord had come.