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An orthodox Christmas

Syrian Orthodox icon

GROWING up, I always used to dread explaining to people which religious faith I belonged to. The questions were typical.

“You’re a Christian? So you’re not Indian.” As if to imply one could not be both.

“Are you Catholic or Christian?” All Catholics are Christians, though all Christians are not always Catholics.

“Syrian what?”

Explaining to people that I belonged to the Orthodox Syrian Christian Church was always time-consuming and confusing, for both myself and the listener. This is because of the erroneous but widely-held belief that Christianity is a Western construct.  In fact, as with the other great Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, the roots of Christianity are in the Middle East, specifically from the geographical area now deemed modern-day Israel.

Despite the popular image of Jesus Christ as blonde-haired and blue-eyed, Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents. In today’s world he would have held either an Israeli passport or one authorised by the Palestinian Authority. He would most likely have had dark hair, olive skin and dark eyes. The language he spoke was Aramaic, an ancient language that is still used in Orthodox Syrian services to this day.

It was from the Middle East that Christianity first spread to other parts of the world and it is not surprising therefore that many of the early churches were established in the East — some of the earliest Christian communities can be found in countries like Ethiopia, Armenia, Egypt, Syria, and India.

My own church, the Orthodox Syrian Church, was founded in Kerala, South India by the Apostle St Thomas. He travelled from Palestine and Syria to India in 52AD to spread the gospel.

Long before the first missionaries from Portugal landed on the Malabar coast, there is historical evidence dating from the fourth century of a thriving Christian community known as the St Thomas Christians practising their faith in Kerala. There was pressure to conform from both the Portuguese and the English missionaries who arrived in Kerala from the 15th century onwards. Nevertheless, the community retained their unique Eastern Christian thought and influence while preserving the core of their original faith. The Orthodox Syrian Church now has a membership of nearly 2 million, with parishes all over India and the world.

Christmas in Brickfields

When members of our community first migrated to Malaya in the early 20th century, they held services and prayer meetings at the YMCA until the first church was built in Kuala Lumpur in 1956. The church that I belong to, the St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Cathedral in Brickfields has a membership of over 193 families.

Our Christmas service is usually held in the early hours of Christmas Day. I can’t say I look forward to leaving my bed at 4am, but once I am at church, it does feel rather special when dawn breaks on Christmas Day. During the service, a bonfire is lit outside the church, a tradition said to originate from Ancient Persia.


Appam and chicken stew (source: Manjuscookingclass.com)

After service, the whole congregation celebrates with a traditional Syrian Christian breakfast — appams, a lacy Keralan pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk, eaten with peppery chicken stew. Our family’s Christmas lunch also embraces our Malayalee heritage. We have roast chicken, stuffed with spicy minced meat, potatoes and bread — a much tastier alternative to the overrated turkey.

Our Christian traditions have Middle Eastern and Indian influences. In our Good Friday services, members of the congregation prostrate themselves — a custom that is also practiced by Jews and Muslims. Our services are in Malayalam (the vernacular language of Kerala) as well as Syriac and Aramaic.

Some of our ceremonies have Hindu influences as well. For example, in our wedding ceremony, the bridegroom ties a “thali” (a gold chain, originally a Hindu custom) around the bride’s neck to symbolise the wedding vows (literally, tying the knot). The gold pendant on the chain is in the shape of a grain of rice inscribed with a cross, symbolizing the unique Eastern form of Christianity we practice.

I believe that these different traditions make us richer as a result. While our customs remain Indian — we wear the sari, speak Malayalam, celebrate Onam with our fellow Malayalee Hindus — we continue to practice a faith that has been ours for the last 1,700 years.

In today’s multicultural world, one’s identity need not be monolithic. It is possible to be Malaysian, Indian, and Syrian Christian all at the same time, without compromising national identity, culture and religious beliefs. Each one of us is a repository for our family stories. Collectively, all our different stories create a multilayered and complex society that makes our world a richer, more exciting place to live in.

See also:

Tis’ the season

The fundamentals of Christmas

Reinterpreting Christmas


Rahel Joseph has over 10 years art management experience in both performing and visual arts. She is currently employed at a leading contemporary art space in Kuala Lumpur.

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5 Responses to “An orthodox Christmas”

  1. Pragalath says:

    Thanks for revealing the diversity among the Christian faith.

  2. Abraham Oommen K says:

    Thank you Rahel for explaining our unique culture. I have a correction. Christianity was founded in Kerala in the first century itself by Apostle St Thomas; in 52 AD. As you know, there were eight churches founded by him among which four are existing. At that time, Christianity was not found even in Europe. Even though the Catholic church is denying this, we have strong traditions to prove it.

  3. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    @ Rahel Joseph

    Shlama loukh!

    However, would you be kind enough to explain the following specifically about your Malaysian Church:

    1) Why is your Christmas Day/service held on the Western Christmas date?

    2) In what way is Syriac and Aramaic different?

    3) How have the Hindu influences on your Church been reconciled with the mainstream orthodoxy?

    4) How do you cross yourselves?

    5) Where do you face when you pray?

    6) Which Bible do you use?

    I can understand how you feel about the ignorance with regard to your religion in Malaysia. I have to live with Malaysian friends who actually think that I am being sloppy for sending out Christmas greetings to some of my non-Malaysian colleagues on January 7th. Well, I can´t be bothered explaining since they don´t ask. Anyway, you can safely assume that I already have basic grounding in the difference and the significance between Syriac and Aramaic, shlama and shlomo, Eastern and Western Orthodoxy, etc. Thanks.

    • M Varghese says:

      1) Christmas was not celebrated on Julian calender dates, before the arrival of Portuguese / British

      2) No idea

      3) There are plenty of Hindu customs followed by Kerala Christians even today, Kerala Christian culture is much different from Western Christian culture.

      4) Hold three fingers of right hand together touch forehead, middle chest, left shoulder, right shoulder

      5) East

      6) The Bible used today is almost same as the western Bible, but it was much different before the arrival of Portuguese / British.


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