Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | December 7, 2010

Christmas in Cambodia

Phnom Penh en route to Poipet

The signs of Christmas are apparent in Phnom Penh — more specifically, the commercial signs of the season. Cambodia is a Buddhist nation with a relatively small Christian population. Nevertheless, merchants throughout the capital city have adorned their stores in the festive garb of Christmas. The only thing missing is any sign of the child in the manger. You won’t find Jesus in Christmas in Cambodia. For Cambodia’s merchants, Christmas is a Western observance worthy of imitation because of its potential to lure the hoi polloi into their establishments. Last night we watched workers set up a large Christmas tree outside of a mall under the watchful eyes of a large crowd. However, the humble masses did not associate Christmas with Christ. Be assured that these Buddhist observers will not be stringing lights on a tree nor will their kids be watching and waiting for old St. Nick.

Cambodia has the trappings of Christmas without the truth about Christmas. The challenge for Cambodian Christians is to “put” Christ in Christmas, to tell their own people the story of Immanuel — God with us — and why He came. The challenge for Christians in America is to “keep” Christ in Christmas lest the season is entirely stripped of its meaning and significance. Being in Cambodia at this time of the year has caused me to think a little deeper about Christmas. I feel that what I am witnessing here is imitation without intimacy. Can you really have Christmas without Christ? What is it that makes Christmas Christmas? What will Christmas become if Christ is no longer at its core? And, why call Christmas Christmas if Christ is not associated with it?

A few years ago I was sharing a meal with friends at a little restaurant in Lijiang, China a couple of weeks before Christmas. We were seated near a large group celebrating a birthday. The birthday girl, a Chinese woman in her forties, asked me if we would honor her by singing a song. Since it was December she asked if we would sing an “American” Christmas song. So, I selected “Silent Night”. Afterward she asked me to explain the meaning of the song. I jumped at the opportunity. Later that evening, after the celebration, this woman became a Christ-follower. Somehow the message of “Silent Night” had struck a chord in her heart! She confessed that she had never known the meaning of Christmas. But, once she heard and understood it, she embraced the Christ of Christmas.

Today we will travel from Phnom Penh to Poipet, a town located on the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Poipet is a place steeped in evil and darkness. Those who traffic human beings for sex and labor have found fields ready for harvest among the poor masses who live in Poipet’s slum neighborhoods. Three years ago, the Buddhist governor of Bantey Meanchey province asked my friend Steve Hyde to do a Christmas program in the province. So, Steve arranged for Cambodian Christians to tell the story of Christmas through the use of drama and music. Four-thousand attended. And, over the past two years the crowds gave grown even more. The people of the province are beginning to learn the story of Christmas.

Those of us who are Christ-followers in America face similar challenges. We can help others understand the meaning of Christmas by telling the story and living the message. By making Christmas about Jesus and about loving and serving others in His name we can help keep Christ in Christmas. Anything less makes Christmas a holiday rather than a holy day. Let’s live the meaning of Christmas this month and throughout the year.


  1. Thank you very much for the sharing this, by article. good for me to learn out of this post.


  2. Spot on insight on an Asian-Christmas-paradox. Inspired by your article I searched for more and found a photographer that took a picture I really think emphasizes your story.
    Anyways. Merry Christmas best wishes to you and your family

  3. oops forgot the link:

    • Thanks, Peter. Great pic. Certainly worth a thousand words! Have a great Christmas.


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