Unlike Idul Fitri, which has been accepted as part of national culture in Indonesia, Christmas is generally deemed an imported tradition, despite the long history of Christianity here.
This is perhaps why greeting Christians on Christmas Day has remained controversial among local Muslims, who make up the majority of the Indonesian population of 235 million.
Christmas here essentially copy-pastes the Western symbols of snow, Jingle Bells, Santa Claus riding a sleigh pulled by nine reindeers, and evergreen coniferous trees — although in some areas local flavors have been added.
Nobody ever made a big fuss over Christmas being a national holiday and a celebration of religious tolerance in this diverse country until the simultaneous bomb attacks on churches across Indonesia on Christmas Eve in 2000.
The attacks, as well as the bloody sectarian clashes in Ambon and Poso between 1999 and 2000, were real tests for Indonesia, which is otherwise recognized as a model for religious tolerance and fertile ground for dialogue among followers of various faiths.
Apart from the threat of terrorism, Christmas this year comes against the backdrop of widespread doubts over interfaith relations here, which human rights groups say remain fragile as evidenced in the closure of churches by hard-line Muslim groups concerned about suspected “Christianization”.
We believe this clampdown on churches — which amounts to a denial of the constitutional right to worship and the universal freedom of religion — was not representative of the behavior of most Indonesian Muslims, who are recognized worldwide for their moderation.
However, the absence of affirmative action by the state to protect religious minorities and punish those committing violence in the name of religion has sent out messages that intolerance is condoned, if not justified.
An ongoing challenge facing believers across the world is how to translate religious teachings into practice, lest their faith be considered irrelevant to the daily problems around the universe. Challenging the teachings all religions spread, world peace is under threat, crime is rampant, poverty is worsening and climate change is creating havoc around the globe, apparently bringing us all closer to doomsday.
For Christians, Christmas marks a new beginning for human salvation and reconciliation between God and His creature called man. More than that, Christmas, like Idul Fitri and other religious holidays, also brings mankind universal hope for peace.
Modesty and solidarity with the poor and the weak are morals Christmas has been advocating since the day Jesus was born. Thus it contradicts the spirit of Christmas if lavish parties are arranged to commemorate this holiday.
In an Indonesian context, Christmas is a good time to ponder the latest UN Human Development Report which ranks Indonesia 108th among the 169 countries assessed. Achieving a score of 0.6 in the Human Development Index, Indonesia was placed in the middle group. This was not a poor achievement considering that over the last three decades the life expectancy of the average Indonesian has increased 19 percent. At the same time absolute poverty and imbalances in wealth distribution remain problems this country has yet to address properly and are indeed causes for concern.
For us, Christmas should go beyond the ritual, and serve to remind us of this nation’s dream of prosperity for all.