For the first time in my life, I did not have a family Christmas on December 25. I chose to do it on December 23, so that I could join with hundreds of Christians and dozens of Government officials in Banteay Meanchey to celebrate Cambodia’s only official Christmas. Being a Buddhist country, Christmas is little known and never been celebrated nationally. In Banteay Meanchey province, in Northwestern Cambodia, the Governor (His Excellence Oeung Uon) officiated over the Christmas celebrations for the last two years. The Governor is not a believer but appreciates the work and benefit that Christians have to the society.
This year, most of the schools and government offices were closed in Banteay Meanchey province to celebrate Christmas even though it is still not a national holiday. We are hoping in the next year or two that Christmas will become a national holiday.
The event started at 4pm and went until midnight. Around 6pm was the peak of the size of the crowed which was very difficult to count. I estimate, conservatively, the crowd was between 6,500 and 7,000 people. Probably about 20% were Christians, the rest were non-believers. It was a very long celebration with singing and dancing programs done by nearly every church in the province. Most performances were very good, impressing the large crowd.
I know in the US so many people in authority are trying to water down Christmas and it purpose. The purpose of Christmas, for nearly 1700 years has been to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. On our sign we had three different languages, “Jeux Noel” (French), “Merry Christmas” and “Apo-sato Bon Kup Komnat Preah Yesu” (Khmer, literally: “Celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ”). Obviously because it is so long to say people shorten it. In Cambodia they usually shorten it to “Noel”. Being a French word, most people do not know what it is. Most people in Cambodia understand Noel to be the celebration of the New Year on December 31. We wanted to make sure what we were celebrating was clear, so we talked to the pastors before hand to make sure everyone, including the emcees, knew to use the long version and not shorten it, thus losing the meaning.
When the governor came up to give some remarks he said immediately, “Welcome to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.” Everyone was happy because the use of such words was very significant. In those few little words, he got the support of every Christian in the province. He was not trying to water down the meaning of the birth of Jesus. He continued by saying that he has read 13 books of the Bible and is very impressed with the wisdom and teachings there. He also said, that even though the government has an official religion it is the policy of the government to allow free expression of religion throughout the country (note: this is the only province, out of 24, in which public celebrations have been allowed and supported by the government).
During the celebrations several hundred people also committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Thousands heard a clear presentation of our need for Jesus Christ and cooperation between Christians and the government was expanded. One of the amazing things is that this was all possible on a budget of $300!