Making Space for a Multicultural Christmas
Article by Michelle Reyes, PhD, educator, writer
The story of Christmas takes place in the first century, and not a single character is Caucasian. Yet the American evangelical celebration of Christmas can have a distinctly vanilla flavor. Nativity scenes have a white baby Jesus, holiday feasts are filled with Anglo-American foods, and church services feature only European hymns.
Of course, people of European descent can and should integrate their specific ethnic expressions into their Christmas celebrations. But many non-white Christians in the United States struggle with the lack of diverse Christmas celebrations, wondering if there’s space for them to celebrate what they can perceive as a “white” holiday.
How can each of us celebrate Christmas at the intersection of our faith and our culture, while welcoming differing cultural perspectives on Christ’s birth?
Gaining Fresh Perspectives
The message of salvation is for every people group (Matt. 28:19). What God has done through Christ crosses ethnic divides and extends to everyone at all times (Luke 2:10). Still, we can approach and celebrate this reality differently from one culture to the next. And our celebration of Christmas is no different.
When we read the Bible together in a multicultural community, believers from differing cultures help us see things in Scripture we tend to miss due to our own blind spots. As Christianity declines in the United States, we should be all the more eager to learn from believers of other cultures and ethnicities so that our eyes might be opened to a new richness and depth to our own faith.
This learning isn’t simply about what global foods, dress, and decorations we can incorporate in our homes during Advent. It’s about discovering each culture’s particular narrative, which emphasizes different elements of the story of Christ’s birth.
Posadas and Remembering the Outcasts
For example, many Central Americans celebrate Posadas. The practice includes going to a friend’s home and reenacting Mary and Joseph’s rejection from the inn (Luke 2:7).
This tradition reminds us that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not accepted. It reminds us that Jesus identifies with the outcast, and his followers should too. The songs and food exchanged during Posadas allows its celebrants to express solidarity with those in need by testifying that even if we have little, we will share it with God and our neighbors.
Kiahk and Identifying with the Reproached
Coptic Christians in Egypt, among others, give focus to the image of the pregnant Mary by practicing a liturgy of Kiahk, reminding us that Advent is a time of waiting and preparing our hearts for Jesus’s birth.
Many Coptic Christians fast during the month of December, believing that Mary would have endured reproach for her mysterious pregnancy and may have responded to her trials by fasting until her son’s birth. Instead of overindulging in the sweets and pleasures that our Americanized holiday offers, how might the practice of fasting reorient our minds to the struggles the Christmas story includes?
In the midst of an immigration crisis at our borders, how might our heart attitudes be reshaped by not overlooking the relatability of Mary—a vulnerable young woman expecting a child out of wedlock—as the one to whom, and through whom, God’s incarnate Son came? We have much to learn from other cultures about remembering and honoring the reproach and faith of Mary in the Christmas story.
Parol and Shining Christ’s Light
A parol is a Filipino lantern displayed during the Christmas season. Traditionally constructed using bamboo and paper, its most common form is a five-pointed star. With its bright colors and twinkling lights, the parol evokes not only the star of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9–10) but also the coming of “the true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).
Whether families hang their parols from windows or line them in church sanctuaries, this tradition celebrates the first advent of Christ, “the light of the world” (John 8:12). It’s also an opportunity to prepare our hearts with gratitude and to consider: Am I shining Christ’s light into the world? Am I proclaiming Jesus’s good news to my neighbors and friends?
Día de los Reyes and Celebrating Gentile Faith
In Argentina, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Mexico, Día de los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day) celebrates the Gentile Magi who traveled far to worship and offer gifts to the true “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1–12).
The Magi are important characters in Scripture’s story because of God’s promise that the nations would one day worship Christ (Gen. 22:18; Isa. 11:10; 60:1–6). The Gospel of Matthew opens with these Gentiles coming to Jesus and closes with the command to make disciples of “all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
El Día de los Reyes reminds us that, like the Magi, we too are welcome to come and worship King Jesus in the fullness of our cultural identities and expressions (Isa. 60:11; Rev. 21:24–26).
We’d do well to make space for a multicultural Christmas, inviting culturally diverse perspectives and celebrations of Christ’s birth in our homes, communities, and churches.
May we each ask ourselves: How does my own ethnic heritage highlight a unique element of Jesus’s birth? And what new aspects about the Christmas story can I learn from other cultures?
We learn the answers to these questions while in community, as we read the story of Jesus’s birth together and learn from each other how to better behold and worship Christ this Christmas.
Michelle Ami Reyes (PhD) is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and the editorial director at Pax. She is also the scholar-in-residence at Hope Community Church, a minority-led, multicultural church in East Austin, Texas, where her husband, Aaron, serves as lead pastor. Michelle’s work on faith and culture has been featured in Christianity Today, ERLC, Missio Alliance, Faithfully Magazine, and more. Her forthcoming book on cross-cultural relationships is called Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead To Lasting Connections Across Cultures (Zondervan 2021). Follow Michelle on Twitter and Instagram.