Churches have decided to drop cultural programs, carol competitions and common meals due to the pandemic
Kamol Biswas’ Christmas season has come with a very different experience from last year.
“When my first child was born shortly after Christmas last year, I was extremely happy and believed the year 2020 was going to be full of blessings and successes,” Biswas, 31, told UCA News.
But his high hopes hit stony ground in March when Covid-19 fell upon Bangladesh.
An ethnic Paharia Catholic from Dohorsoli village covered by Mary, Queen Assumed into Heaven Church in Rajshahi Diocese in northern Bangladesh, he runs a tea stall near his home at Ishwardi in Pabna district.
On average he earns 7,000 taka (US$83) per month. His parents are irregular day laborers who largely rely on his income.
Due to the COVID-19 shutdown and ban on public gatherings, his shop was closed for three months and he took large loans from a non-government organization to stay afloat.
He is still struggling to pay back the loans and feed the six-member family. He cannot afford to celebrate Christmas like in past years.
“This Christmas I am staying away from shopping for new clothes for my family or decorating the house. I will just buy some food like sweets, meat and cake. I’m also arranging some traditional drinks made with rice,” Biswas said.
Moreover, he has also not invited any Muslim or Hindu friends.
“This year I did not invite my friends because I don’t have enough arrangements due to lack of money. But I’m hopeful by the blessing of Jesus we will be able to have a better time from the new year,” he added.
Thousands of Christians — Bengali and indigenous — among the millions of poor in Bangladesh are still reeling from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have lost jobs, businesses and income in big cities like capital Dhaka and embraced a humiliating return to their village homes.
A different Christmas
Christians are a minuscule minority, accounting for less than half percent of more than 160 million people in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, and for them Christmas bears added significance.
Christmas is the only Christian feast that enjoys a public holiday and it is well known to all other faiths. In Bangla, the national language, Christmas is known as Bara Din (Big Day).
During Christmas most Christians living in cities head to their village homes to celebrate the feast with family and friends.
Christians are divided into Bengali and ethnic communities and both groups have their own traditional ways to celebrate the festival that runs from Christmas Eve to New Year.
Preparations for Christmas start more than a month before. In cities and villages, young people and adults practice carol singing for house-to-house caroling as well as for carol competitions.
People buy new clothes ahead of Christmas and clean, decorate and illuminate their houses with lights of various colors. In villages and cities, Christian women make local delicacies like desi cakes to serve guests.
In rural areas, people draw flowers, angels and other artworks in houses made of bamboo. Some also set up traditional nativity scenes and colorful big stars on top of their houses as a sign of the birth of Jesus.
Christmas is missing the usual color this year, says Taposh Adhikary, 38, a Baptist from Gopalganj district, about 200 kilometers south of Dhaka.
“As I walk along the village road, there is no sign of Christmas unlike past years. Usually, this time people are in a festive mood, but I don’t see it this year,” Adhikary, a Bengali, told UCA News.
An NGO official, Adhikary himself is also upset. Since May, he has been receiving about half of his regular salary of 18,000 taka ($214) per month.
“My five-year-old daughter has been decorating the house with old stuff, and only she will get new clothes this year. Unlike previous years, I cannot prepare the nativity scene at home,” he said.
“Although COVID-19 has dampened Christmas celebrations, we should learn good lessons. We should not waste money and if possible do something for the poor.”
Sagar Sanjib Corraya, a Bengali Catholic and Dhaka-based online businessman, noted that migrant Christians are less interested in traveling to village homes for Christmas this year.
“Due to fear of COVID-19, people from the city do not want to go to their home village to celebrate Christmas like in past years,” Corraya told UCA News.
Following an instruction from the government on Dec. 10 not to arrange any elaborate social or cultural programs during Christmas and New Year, churches have decided to drop cultural programs, carol competitions and common meals this year, which further dampened the Christmas spirit.
“We do not see the excitement of Christmas this year. People are in difficult situations and fear due to COVID-19,” Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur told UCA News.
Christmas Masses will be held with due safety procedures but there will be no carolling or feasts in the church, the prelate said.
“Despite all the difficulties, people have prepared for Christmas spiritually and they have also been through the Sacrament of Confession. We have prepared elderly, youth and children separately ahead of Christmas,” Bishop Tudu added.