How to Celebrate Christmas in Indonesia

Selamat Hari Natal! Celebrating Christmas in Flores

Drawing towards the end of the month of December and being a student with the ACICIS Flexible Language Immersion Program at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta meant three things for me. 

Firstly, I was just a few final exams away from the end of the semester and the beginning of my travels in Indonesia. Secondly, my first Christmas overseas without my family was fast approaching and thirdly, this would be my first opportunity to discover what Indonesia might be like over Christmas. 

Christmas in the World’s Largest Muslim-majority Country 

At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Christmas celebrations in Indonesia given that Indonesia has the largest Muslim community in the world. Muslims make up about 85% of the population. 

However, Indonesia is a large and pluralistic nation, and many communities across Indonesia embrace Christianity as their religion, divided between Protestantism and Catholicism. 

Specifically, the eastern parts of the archipelago, North Sulawesi and parts of North Sumatra have large Christian communities. Minorities within urban settings also subscribe to Christian beliefs. 

The countdown to Christmas was also visible in my hometown of Yogyakarta, although this was mostly confined to commercial spaces such as the shopping malls. 

Famous malls such as Plaza Ambarrukmo and Hartono Mall stepped into the Christmas spirit with an abundance of Christmas-themed decorations, ranging from gigantic Christmas trees, luminous reindeer, golden jingle bells, falling snow, and a Santa Claus waiting to meet and greet you. 

Moreover, many restaurants had special Christmas menus and shops offered Christmas promotions. 

Exploring What Flores Might be Like Over Christmas

Raised a Christian, I was used to nativity plays at school and going to church on Christmas Eve. What’s more, I have always strongly associated Christmas with values such as gratitude, solidarity, peace and goodwill. 

To see if I could celebrate Christmas in a more religiously significant way than the kind of celebrations on offer in Yogyakarta’s shopping centres, I decided to travel to the majority-Christian island of Flores.

A three-hour flight brought me to Labuan Bajo, the tourist epicentre and capital of Flores

From there I travelled to Ruteng, a town also known as Kota Seribu Gereja (the city of a thousand churches) since the place is dotted with Catholic churches. 

Ruteng does not have many tourist attractions and its cool, wet climate isn’t very relishing either.  But my accommodation in Ruteng proved to have a most serene atmosphere, and offered a better way to spend the days before Christmas than I could ever have imagined before going to Flores.

A Memorable Experience: Sleeping at a Convent 

With one of the nuns at Wisma Sister Maria Berdukacita

Wisma Suster Maria Berdukacita, also known as Hotel Susteran, is a guesthouse in Ruteng that was initially built by the Sisters of the Sorrowed Mother Mary Congregation for internal purposes.

Later on, the guesthouse started to welcome foreign visitors. 

The hospitable nuns made me feel directly at home in their beautifully maintained convent. Moreover, staying with them got me into the Christmas mood. 

I awoke to their choir, which could be heard from the rooms, and in our breakfast room was a large display of baby Jesus in a manger. 

The serene quietness around the convent and being disconnected from the outside world – there is no WiFi at the convent – felt peaceful and made me feel grateful to be able to travel to this place. 

My journey continued further eastwards to Wodong, a small village 26km east of Maumere, where I would celebrate Christmas Eve. 

Along the way to Wodong, I passed many Christmas trees. Some were similar to artificial Christmas trees, but many others had a creative, local twist and were made from reusable materials such as bamboo or plastic bottles. 

A Christmas tree made of bamboo

Interested in exploring the country further? Check out Emma Roberts’ story of why she decided to learn Indonesian!

The Christmas Eve Service in Wodong, East Flores

Together with the owner of my homestay in Wodong and with a French backpacker who I met along the way, we went to church for the Christmas Eve service. 

From outside the church, we could already hear Christmas carols such as Malam Kudus, the Indonesian version of ‘Silent Night’.  

The church was packed with people, all of whom were dressed beautifully.

I didn’t understand much of the Indonesian Christmas carols, but I would describe the atmosphere in the church as one which I associate with Christmas: solidarity. 

For the children, the end of the service was probably the most exciting part, when they could finally fire off their fireworks to celebrate the birth of Jesus. 

Selamat Hari Natal (Merry Christmas) they cheered after the first explosion of firework colours. 

Likewise, I was looking forward to the dinner the homestay owner had prepared for us: ikan bakar (grilled fish), roasted ubi nuabosi (sweet potato), boiled vegetables, Jawada (a sweet, crispy snack made from rice flour, palm sugar and coconut milk) and Arak (traditional Indonesian spirit liquor made from the Lontar Palm tree). Enak banget! (Very tasty!)  

Seeing pictures of my family enjoying their Christmas dinner together generated a sense of homesickness, but celebrating Christmas in Flores offered me the chance to experience something unique and unconventional, and to get involved in local Christmas traditions. 

With the opportunity to stay on the grounds of a convent and to attend the church service, this had become a Hari Natal that went beyond my expectations and it’s a memory which I will always cherish.

One of the many churches along the way to Wodong

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Lotte Troost

Lotte has a master’s degree in Contemporary Asian Studies from the University of Amsterdam. She lived alternately in Yogyakarta and Bandung to study the Indonesian language and to volunteer with various NGOs. In East Kalimantan she conducted fieldwork research on gender and social movements. Lotte has a genuine passion for intercultural learning, ethnology and languages.

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