The following entry was contributed by the Antsirabe, Madagascar, project. Unbound serves more than 700 children, youth and the aging in Madagascar.
Once, a little child in the countryside was asked, “What is Christmas all about?” The answer was, “Christmas is when we receive little rice cakes in church.”
The child remembered something important about Christmas: the gift of a couple of rice cakes in church. And this happens only on Christmas.
Christmastime is very much a time when families get together, visit each other or go to church together. Food will usually be better than the everyday meal. If they can afford it, parents will buy and prepare chicken or pork as a special meal.
Whoever can will dress in a smart, perhaps even new outfit. Since December is one of the hottest months of the year, women and girls will wear very pretty summer dresses in church.
As in most countries, people like to give each other Christmas gifts. Within families, parents like to give new clothes to their children. Poorer families, however, may not be able to afford buying gifts, so they make do without. Christmas is a time of doing good for others as well.
For many people in Madagascar, Christmas is celebrated over a long period of time, spreading out over several months. It will usually start in the month of December with typical Christmas songs being sung in most churches.
Choirs and youth groups will meet on certain afternoons for practicing Christmas songs, so they will be able to perform well on Christmas Day or at another time. There are translated Western Christmas songs, but also many songs Malagasy people have written.
Many people write their own poems which will be presented at Christmas, on a special afternoon or on an additional Sunday for their specific group. Thus it is possible that each group in a church will celebrate Christmas on a given Sunday, presenting songs, sketches or Bible verses they learned by heart.
You can easily have Christmas celebrations all the way from December through to March. One church could easily have 20 Christmas celebration services, and everyone is welcome to come and enjoy.
Another custom is the walking around the Christmas tree. If possible, a pine tree will be erected in the front area of the church so that all the people can see it. Colorful ribbons or other decorations, small electric lights and cut-out pictures will give the tree a beautiful appearance.
On Christmas Day, each church group (women, men, choir, young people, Sunday school or children) will come to the front, singing and walking around the tree. Never mind that it takes a very long time. All the other people in church enjoy the songs, the live presentations of the others.
For those who need to stretch their legs or to buy some snacks outside, it is common practice to do so. Therefore, a Christmas service can last the whole morning, up to four or five hours.
Then in the afternoon, more singing and group presentations will continue. It is a local church event where everybody tries to attend or even take part.