Anyone who has ever read a newspaper article on Indonesia knows, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. What many do not know is that Indonesia also has a large Christian population. About 7% of Indonesians identify as Protestants. Another 3% identify as Roman Catholics. This is over 24 million people!
Consequently Christmas is widely celebrated in Indonesia. Especially in urban areas, where the population is more diverse. Naturally, December 25th is also a national public holiday.
In Indonesian, the greeting is “Selamat Hari Natal” (Merry Christmas). This is usually followed by “dan Tahun Baru!” (and a Happy New Year!).
Some Muslims may use the phrase “Selamat Hari Kelahiran Isa Al-Masih“. This refers to Jesus’ name in Arabic, as it is written in the Quran.
In Indonesia it is very common to give best wishes on religious holidays to friends and relatives. If you know a person is celebrating, you can certainly wish them a Merry Christmas. In places where people of various religions are present (such as a meeting or a Whatsapp group), often the greeting is qualified with “bagi yang merayakan“. It means “for those who are celebrating”.
Many Indonesians assume that all Westerners are Christians. You may receive Christmas wishes even if you are not celebrating.
Churches around the nation will hold celebrations. Churches are usually full, even while offering multiple service times. In cities with large expat presence, it is possible to find services in English or other languages.
Unfortunately, in the past Christmas services have been targets of terrorism. Most notably in 2000 when several churches in Indonesia were bombed on Christmas eve. Therefore, the police often increases its presence around churches during this time. In an act of tolerance, Banser often also help in securing churches. Banser is the Muslim youth group of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). NU is Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. In Bali, the traditional Hindu Pecalangs will also help with security around churches.
Churches will may hold charity drives to help the poor during the holidays. These can include cash, food and gift baskets with grocery staples. These are given to the needy around the neighborhood, regardless of religious affiliation.
Some areas with large Christian populations have unique traditions. For example, in Yogyakarta you may catch a wayang kulit show about the nativity of Jesus. In Bali, the Christian communities will erect penjors (street ornaments made of bamboo), similar to those used during Hindu holidays. In recent years, Toraja has started the Lovely December festival. This month-long event showcases Toraja culture and cuisine.
Christmas is also a huge travel holiday. Most schools will have term breaks in late December. Further, many employers will also give the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day as vacation time. However, unlike Eid Al-Fitr where the majority visit their hometowns, many use the Christmas holidays to visit popular travel spots.
Shopping and Gifting
The Christmas shopping season in Indonesia is every bit as commercialized as it is in the West. You can expect Christmas decorations, complete with fake snow, starting early December. You can also buy all kinds of Christmas trees. Most are plastic but some are real. Various decorations and Santa hats are widely available.
Some malls will have Santa Claus available for picture-taking. The Indonesian call him Sinterklaas (from the Dutch word). He is sometimes attended by Zwarte Piet or Piet Hitam (Black Piet).
Piet often wears blackface make-up. In the folklore, his duty is to punish naughty children, taking them away in his sack. If you see children crying hysterically at a mall Santa display, now you know why. Thankfully this controversial character of Dutch origins is losing popularity.
Indonesia does not have a Christmas gifting culture. Consequently most people do not expect a gift. Still, small gestures will be appreciated, especially towards children.
Dining and Dishes
Many Indonesian Christmas dishes have Dutch origins. These included kukis (cookies) such as nastar (pinapple tart) and kastengel (cheese cookie). Others include poffertjes (Dutch pancakes) and klappertaart (coconut cake)
Hotels and restaurants will have Christmas day brunches, dinners and other specials as well. The more upscale ones will even have traditional Christmas turkey and maybe even ham.
Considerations for Christian employees
Similar to Muslim employees during Eid al-Fitr, the law requires that Christian employees be given their yearly bonus at Christmas time. In particular, the rules are as follows:
- The bonus is payable to Christian employees seven days prior to Christmas
- The amount is one month’s wage. The wage is the pay, and any regular benefits, such as meal allowances.
- Those who have at least 1 year of service, are eligible for the full amount.
- Those who have worked for at least 30 days are eligible to receive a prorated amount.
- Includes all regular employees, whether full-time, part-time or on contract basis.
- You may subtract up to 50% of the bonus to pay for any debt to you by the employee.
- Payable in money only.
- Employees who quit over 30 days prior to their designated holiday are no longer eligible.
Additionally, some employees will want to go to their hometown during the holidays. If it is a distance away, it is reasonable to allow them around 2 weeks vacation time.