Asia is the continent where, for the most part, Christmas hasn’t come. I’m not talking about Santa Claus or garland and lights. I mean real Christmas—the arrival of God Incarnate, the completion of every prophesy and the very hope of every nation for all time.
Asia is the continent with the highest percentage of people with no access to the gospel in the world. This is the continent where Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism eclipse Christianity in sheer numbers of believers. It’s the place in the world where Jesus is least likely to be known and worshiped.
With that in mind, we talked with four women living in different corners in Asia—Central Asia, East Asia, and South Asia—about what it is like for missionaries serving there to celebrate Christmas. Although aspects of their experiences of Christmas overseas vary, one common thread is that the highlight of the holiday for all of them is sharing the story of the Savior with those who have never heard the angels’ song of good news of great joy.
Here’s what Christmas is like in three corners of Asia according to four missionaries serving there.
Christmas in Central Asia
Celebrating Christmas here is astronomically different than in the States. Literally 100 percent of our children’s friends are Muslim, and most of our adult friends as well. We live in a city of more than two hundred thousand people and almost no one here worships Jesus.
There is no church to advertise a Christmas program, there are no lights, no trees, no Christmas music, no Santa Claus, no decorations of any sort anywhere. There’s not even access to a Bible if someone wanted to learn about the Christmas story.
When we wake up in our country on Christmas morning, everyone goes to school and work as if it’s just another day. It’s eerie. The good news is that this has helped refocus our heart on what really matters.
“The meaning of Jesus’s birth feels like this precious secret that I deeply treasure in my heart while wanting to scream ‘He’s here, and you’re all missing it!’”
I usually spend weeks feeling a sense of depression mixed with exuberant joy because while our family is looking forward to the promised One, no one around me seems to be looking for him. The meaning of Jesus’s birth feels like this precious secret that I deeply treasure in my heart while wanting to scream “He’s here and you’re all missing it!”
We do some version of a Jesse Tree every year with our children, and it’s always meaningful to look back at God’s big plan from the beginning. I usually study a devotional guide that goes into more depth because I need to be reminded that we didn’t just make all of this stuff up about Jesus. When literally all of our friends believe otherwise, I can’t overstate the power of God’s Word to encourage, convict, and convey the story of the ages to my longing heart.
Every year we bake Christmas goodies and take them to friends and to our kids’ school. We attach candy canes to cards, including an excerpt about the shepherds hearing the good news. We’ve also given out booklets explaining what Christmas is in a nutshell and hosted Christmas parties. We’re thankful for the chance to share sweets and to share truth!
—Cathy Vinson, Central Asia
Christmas in East Asia
Except for Christians who meet for worship, Christmas is not celebrated where I live in East Asia. I’ve made it a habit to ride my bicycle to the nearest church on the Christmas Eve, squeeze me and my puffy down jacket in between the other worshipers in the standing-room-only church auditorium, and chime in with the choir as they lead us in singing Christmas carols at the three- to four-hour long marathon service.
When it’s over, we file out through the courtyard to the bike racks and accept the gift bag of peanuts offered by the church ushers at the gate. Then I slowly pedal back home along the deserted bike path on one of the coldest nights of the year, under the stars. It feels magical!
The next morning, I peer out my balcony at the rush hour crowds heading to work for Christmas Day, and I pray that one day this nation will be a Christian nation in which the coming of Christ is celebrated by the majority.
“In the local language, Christmas Eve is literally translated as ‘Peace Night.’ The first character in the word for apple and the first character in the word for peace sound the same, so giving an apple is like wishing peace to a friend.”
Every Christmas I put together packets of socks, gloves, candy, the JESUS film on DVD, and Scripture portions to distribute to people living in villages who have no access to the gospel. I distribute about one hundred packets each year. They love the gifts, and distributing them is the highlight of my holiday season.
—Emily Stockton, East Asia
One of the things some of the young Christians here do is to give an apple to their close friends on Christmas Eve. In the local language, Christmas Eve is literally translated as “Peace Night.” The first character in the word for apple and the first character in the word for peace sound the same, so giving an apple is like wishing peace to a friend.
This local tradition has really made the fact that Jesus came as the Prince of Peace mean so much more to me. I’m often able to use this example to naturally bridge into sharing the gospel since Jesus came not just to be born, but to die for our sin and give us peace with God.
—Roxie Malone, East Asia
Christmas in South Asia
I really love celebrating Christmas in Asia. While I miss spending time with our extended family, I enjoy the simplicity of celebrating Christmas here. We have purposefully kept our Christmas celebrations focused on Jesus and don’t include other stories that can overtake the true meaning of Christmas.
It’s too confusing to our friends, neighbors, and our children to include elements like Santa and reindeer. We’ve been surprised that people are more likely to know the secular stories surrounding Christmas like Rudolph and Santa Claus, but don’t know the story of Jesus’s birth.
We often host a drop-in Christmas tea for our neighbors and give out wrapped copies of the New Testament and JESUS film. We serve a combination of local and American snacks and everyone really enjoys the time. We’ve had good opportunities to share the true story of Christmas sometimes with henna drawings on women’s hands or star shaped sugar cookies.
Every Christmas Eve we order pizza and watch The Nativity Story together as a family. In all the excitement about presents, we don’t want our kids to forget the true meaning of Christmas.
—Madison Strauder, South Asia
Eliza Thomas is a writer and content editor for IMB. She has lived with her family in Central Asia for more than a decade.