Thursday, September 21, 2017

Christmas in Kachin

Despite being far from home and working with limited means, Kachin refugee groups around Myitkyina have vowed to put on a traditional Kachin Christmas.

A Kachin church group sings Christmas carols in Laiza. Photo: Niels HubyA Kachin church group sings Christmas carols in Laiza. Photo: Niels Huby

“We’re going to put on the best celebration we can with the supplies we’ve got,” said Reverend Aung Myat, an administrator from the Jan Mai refugee camp in Myitkyina, which is home to about 1000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

As Daw Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network explained, Christmas is still a relatively new concept in the long history of the Kachin people.

She said that from the moment Christianity arrived in Myanmar via missionaries from the West, Kachin people have celebrated in their own way.

“Even before [Christianity was introduced], Kachin celebrations always involved gathering together for singing and dancing,” she said.

Daw Khon Ja, who divides her time between Myitkyina and Yangon, explained that traditionally the residents of several villages or townships gather on Christmas Eve to take part in what she described as a line dance: “Something simple that all ages can dance to.”

While the dancing is fun for every one, it is of secondary importance to the singing. Daw Khon Ja and Rev Aung Kyat both affirmed that the Kachin affinity for singing fits nicely into the Christian traditions of hymns and gospel.

Once the sun goes down, the assembled Kachin alternate singing songs about the birth of Jesus and about paying tribute to their home villages.

According to Daw Khon Ja, each village has its own anthem describing the local scenery. “You could draw a map of Kachin by listening to the songs,” she said.

Sadly, these traditions are just a few of the many aspects of life in Kachin State that has been derailed by the region’s ongoing civil war.

Young IDPs celebrate Christmas in Laiza. Photo: Niels HubyYoung IDPs celebrate Christmas in Laiza. Photo: Niels Huby

Even with the Kachin Independence Army and the government engaged in peace talks, minor skirmishes in rural areas remain common and make securing large gatherings all but impossible.

Daw Khon Ja was quick to point out that with so many people in the countryside forced to abandon their homes, there wouldn’t be many attendees even if some intrepid church tried to organise a large-scale Christmas event.

Still, Daw Khon Jaw and many other activists believe these traditions need to be preserved for the role they play in uniting the Kachin people.

In that spirit, IDP camps around Myitkyina, as well as cities with large IDP populations such as Bhamo and Laiza, will be holding scaled-down versions of the traditional Christmas celebrations.

Local churches will be donating the essentials, which include small gifts for children and Kachin rice wine for adults. Although gift-giving is a Christmas tradition, Daw Khon Jaw said bestowing lavish, expensive presents has never been a key component of their Christmas experience – it’s more about imparting a Christian sense of generosity.

As for the singing, Rev Aung Kyat said the same songs will be sung this year, adding that if 2012 was any indication, these will be emotional moments during the festivities.

“Many of these people have not been home for so long. Sometimes the songs remind them of how much they miss their homes,” he said.

When asked if they would ever skip the singing and spare the IDPs, Rev Aung Kyat said the people wouldn’t hear of it: Christmas without their hometown anthems would be “impossible”.