Nepal's small Christian community is excited about Christmas, which it calls "hamro Dasai". Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings-the Christian icons of Christmas are being Nepalified.
At the Church of the Assumption in Jawalakhel, Fr Bogati describes what attracts even people from other faiths to come see the Christmas day celebrations: "They feel at home, like in a temple." During Nepali mass anyone can perform arati with dhoop instead of the incense used in traditional Catholic services. "And after communion, they are given flowers as prasad, or blessings so they don't go away empty handed," the father explains.
The church itself is a testament to cultural overlaps. The brick exterior is lined with pillars reminiscent of those found at Hindu temples across the Valley. Guardian angels appear as dwar palaks at either side of the entrance (see pic, bottom left)and the heavy doors are carved wood complete with Buddhist lotus symbols. On the walls, thangka hangings depict various Biblical scenes. In one, Jesus and his disciples break bread over the Last Supper inside a Nepali house while ominous black clouds swirl overhead.
Before Christmas Eve mass, many Christians go carolling, a custom some say has been imported from Darjeeling. Carol khelne, or "playing carol", is similar to the deosi and bhailo traditions during Tihar. It's a door-to-door ministry, sharing the good news of Jesus' birth and being witnesses to their faith. Some of the carols are English staples translated into Nepali while others are original Nepali compositions.
Like in the last few Christmases, this year there will be no Midnight Mass because of transportation and security problems. Most churches will instead celebrate an evening mass. Then, as in Sagar Rizal's home, the service is followed by a family celebration. "It's a good time for family to come together and have a bhoj. The feast is mostly Nepali food and some bring birthday cakes. We decorate our homes and wear new clothes."
Rizal belongs to the Nepal Bible Church in Satdobato, a Protestant church, which has a greater following than Catholics. The first Catholic missionaries came to Nepal even before Prithibi Narayan, but Shah rulers mistrusted Catholic priests so they retreated to India. Says Fr Bogati: "Basically we are the same. Even as Christians we have our Nepali culture, which we should keep."
On Christmas Day this year, Fr Joseph Thaler will conduct morning mass at Jawalakhel. Most will sit cross-legged on the floor and sing hymns. When he first came to live in Nepal in 1977, Thaler lived with a Brahmin family. "I saw them truly practice and live out their faith, which inspired me to live out my own. People's fundamental questions were the same as were their struggles with what is right and just, transcending any -isms."
As 25-year-old Dina Tamang, a member at The Church of the Assumption, prepares to celebrate Christmas, she'll go to confession on 24 December. "Before Jesus is born, we believe we have to clean ourselves of pap," she says, using the Nepali word for sin. Afterwards, her family gets together for a typically Nepali feast, except for a Christmas fruitcake. Her dreams of a perfect Christmas are complete when her friends, mostly Hindu and Buddhist, come to church on Christmas night.
24 December Christmas Eve Mass at The Church of the Assumption, Jawalakhel 6PM 5526732
25 December Christmas Day Mass at The Church of the Assumption, Jawalakhel 9AM & 5PM 5526732
25 December Christmas Day Mass at Birendra International Convention Centre, Baneshwor 10AM 5533564 (Koinonia Patan Church)
25 December Christmas Day Mass at Nepali Isaimandali Gyaneshwor Church, Gyaneshwor 11AM 4414489