Christmas Prepared Bali-Style: Bali

A stone relief above the altar of a church in Bali’s oldest Catholic community depicts a Balinese-looking Jesus accompanied by his twelve apostles, all wearing traditional Balinese dress. In the relief at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, located in Tuka village, some 15 kilometers south of Denpasar, the apostles can be seen holding a gebogan — a signature Balinese fruit offering.

“The relief and architecture of the church are Balinese,” an activist from the Holy Trinity Church, Fransiscus Wayan Suwardi, said as Prodita Sabarini explained.

The church was constructed in Balinese style and the building resembles a customary meeting hall, with no walls.

Meanwhile, the Protestant Church at Padang Luwih Dalung also features Balinese architecture, with Balinese-inspired gates and carvings.

As a Catholic church activist, Suwardi, along with fellow comrades, was busy Thursday preparing for the Christmas celebration next week.

In Bali, international Christmas paraphernalia, like Christmas trees and Santa Claus, is an uncommon sight.

In the same way Catholics and Protestants the world over adorn their places of worship during the festive season, Balinese Catholics also celebrate the birth of Jesus and decorate in local style.

In a predominantly Hindu society, Balinese Catholics and Protestants hold dear their Hindu-influenced ancestral customs, incorporating Hindu-influenced customs to religious ceremonies.

“We use penjor (bamboo poles decorated with coconut leaves) to decorate the church and the congregation wears traditional Balinese attire to church,” Suwardi said.

The lines of penjor in front of Bali’s churches makes Christmas in Bali feels like the Balinese Hindus’ Galungan day.

Suwardi said as well as preparing a Christmas play, the congregation had also prepared gebogan.

Gebogan is a decoration made from leaves which have been arranged and shaped into a wreath and decorated with fruits and flowers.

“In Hindu religion, all ornaments have a religious meaning. As Balinese, we take the traditional Balinese art and acculturate it to our ceremonies,” Suwardi said.

“The penjor and offerings, however, do not have a religious meaning for Hindus. We use these to preserve our tradition.” Suwardi also said it was a way for Christians to hold on to their Balinese roots.

A priest from the Protestant church in Padang Luwih, Dalung, said Balinese used local paraphernalia, “so that people can feel Jesus is also here in Bali”.

There are more than 10,000 Christians in Bali; a relatively small number compared to the three million Hindus.

The use of Hindu paraphernalia by Christians has caused some resentment from Balinese Hindus.

The former Catholic Foundation of Swastiastu, for example, is now called Insan Mandiri (self-help humanity), because Hindus invoke God with the phrase “Om Swastiastu“.

Father Kristianus Ratu SVD from the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Tuka, however, said Balinese culture is very unique and the use of local culture is a way for Catholics to show their devotion to God.

“Jesus himself came to the world through culture. We should embrace the local culture to show our devotion to God,” he said.