A universal story: Christmas in NH celebrated with many customs, in many tongues

New Hampshire Sunday News
December 24. 2017 2:46AM
Altar server Winston Huynh of Manchester prepares for the procession before the start of a Mass in Vietnamese at St. Anne-St. Augustin Parish in Manchester last Sunday. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

Tomorrow is Christmas, when Christians celebrate their "dear Savior's birth," as the old carol goes.

This Christmas in New Hampshire, if you wish, you can hear the Catholic Mass said in Portuguese at a Nashua church or in Vietnamese in Manchester. A Concord church will celebrate the birth of the Christ child in Swahili.

A Presbyterian church in Rochester will sing and pray in Indonesian. And Christmas carols will be sung in Polish at a Manchester cathedral.

The language and customs may vary but the story they all celebrate is timeless and universal.

The Rev. Jason Wells is executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches. An Episcopal priest, he'll preach on Christmas at the state prison for women.

Wells said the story of the nativity transcends cultural and language differences.

"If we're middle class people who will go back to our Christmas trees in the suburbs, like me, or if we're women in prison on a drug charge, or if we're here from another country where we rarely hear our own language spoken anymore except when we go to church, we're reaching the same human nature, the same kinds of concerns and fears, doubts and addictions," Wells said. "We all have need of the same message of hope."

Bishop Paul Sobiechowski is pastor of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Manchester, a parish of the Polish National Catholic Church. These days, he said, most parishioners are fourth- or fifth-generation Polish, so the Mass is celebrated in English.

But some of the carols they sing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be in the old tongue. And families will celebrate traditional customs, breaking the "oplatki" wafer that is embossed with a nativity scene before sharing a meatless dinner on Christmas Eve.

For believers, Sobiechowski said, "Christmas is the celebration of that moment in time when God became man."

And that makes it a universal celebration, he said. "Because from our perspective, when Christ died on the cross, he gave the opportunity for all of us to share in life everlasting and salvation."

The Rev. W. Pierre Baker is pastor of Saint John XXIII Parish at Infant Jesus Church in Nashua, where a Brazilian priest celebrates Mass each Sunday in Portuguese, drawing parishioners who hail from the Azores, Portugal and Brazil.

There are Nashua churches with Sunday services in Spanish, Vietnamese, Latin, French - even in the ancient Syro-Malabar Eastern rite from India.

"Like Manchester, the languages are resplendent around here," Baker said. "Our (parish) school here is like the United Nations. We have kids from every imaginable country and they all live and work together just fine.

"Kids are wonderful at that," he said.

Baker attended the school's Christmas concert last week, where carols were sung in five languages. "They finished it up by singing it in sign language, which was really striking," he said.

Baker said the story of Christmas "has a way of touching the hearts of everybody."

Jelty Ochotan is pastor at Marturia Presbyterian Church in Rochester. He's bilingual, preaching in Indonesian and English. And the Christmas carols they sing will also be in both languages.

After church, families will gather for fellowship. It's a little taste of home, Ochotan said. "They feel like this is their family," he said.

It's the same at Overcomers Church of God in Concord, where Africans from many cultures come together in worship. The Christmas service begins at 11 a.m., but it really gets going around noontime and continues for three hours. Afterward, families linger for fellowship, and the children will receive Christmas gifts, according to Pastor Clement Kigugu.

Born in Rwanda, Kigugu moved to Congo when he was young. He returned to Rwanda after the genocide, ministering to widows, orphans and AIDS patients.

When he moved to the United States, he followed his calling into ministry. "When I came to this country, God put me again in front of the people from different worlds that have the same problems," he said.

His church serves as a model for reconciliation, Kigugu said. "We have people that were fighting back home, but now we worship together," he said.

And that's the message the church wants to impart, he said. "The Bible teaches us to forgive, so that's really the message that we need to send out to people. And the more people forgive, the more people get healed. But if they keep their wounds, there will be more wars in the world."

"We still have people that still have the wounds in their hearts," he said. "We're trying to show them that God is love. So if you don't love your neighbor, you don't love God."

Deacon Ramon Andrade is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester's first-ever cabinet secretary for multicultural ministry. He's a deacon at St. Anne-St. Augustin Parish in Manchester, which has become a model for celebrating diversity and unity.

This Christmas Eve, the 7 p.m. Mass will be celebrated in four languages: English, Spanish, Arabic and Vietnamese, Andrade said. In the pews will be immigrants from many nations, including Vietnam, Sudan, Brazil, Bosnia and Mexico.

"We are all Catholics, and that's why we can celebrate together," Andrade said.

At the end of Mass, the children will perform a pageant of the Nativity. They will present the infant Jesus to the priest, who will place the baby in the manger. Then, one by one, parishioners will come forward to kiss the baby, Andrade said.

Santa Claus also will make a special appearance, he said. "He's going to the manger and he kneels in front of the baby Jesus," he said. "It is very powerful for the children."

Andrade is proud of his multicultural parish, where people of so many backgrounds honor and respect each other's traditions. "It's the way that it should be," he said.

Wells said the world needs the message of Christmas now more than ever. "The audacity of Christian faith is that God is always greater than the problems and the evils that we face," Wells said. "Which is a paradox, because we are worshipping Jesus as an infant, who seems not at all more powerful than the great forces that are going on around us.

"But that is what the hope is, that in the end Jesus Christ is going to be victorious over those things."



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