Nepal's Christians to mark Christmas church service virtually

KATHMANDU: The sparkling stars, beautiful bells, reindeer and lights decked around the trees, congregations exchanging gifts and singing hymns in Naya Gaun Church of Pokhara are the first things that the church's Elder Prakash Shrestha remembers while talking about Christmas Day (December 25). But this year he will be missing such moments. And most of the churches in the country will be doing without an in-person Christmas service at churches opting for virtual Christmas service.

From a month prior to Christmas Day, believers used to get busy in preparation for Christmas celebration with different groups created for arranging fellowship, Prem Bhoj (Love Feast), singing carols, decorations and so on.

“Activities like singing carols extolling and commemorating the birth of Jesus reaching each community of Naya Gaun used to take place a few days before Christmas. But this year due to COVID-19, we neither organised such activities nor made any preparation for Christmas celebrations. So, there is no festive atmosphere,” shared Shrestha.

Father Richard from the Assumption Catholic Church at Dhobighat, Lalitpur also recalled the grand celebrations with carol singing on December 22 last year. “We had invited the Lalitpur Metropolitan City’s Mayor, SSP and other neighbours around us on carol singing day,” he reminisced.

Father Richard is also missing that Christmas vibe in the church where around 80 families used to gather for Christmas celebration on December 25. He noted, “It is the first time in my lifetime in this church that we are celebrating Christmas virtually, without visiting any church or meeting other congregants.”

Churches remain closed 

The majority of churches in different parts of the country are asking their believers to celebrate Christmas at home. Many churches, which have remained closed since the lockdown,will remain closed on this special day too. The Nepali Isai Mandir (NIM) Gyaneshwor Church is one of them — the church has been opening once a week only after the lockdown ended. Yet it will also be closed for mass gathering on Christmas Day.

Hira Bode, a staff at NIM Gyaneshwor Church shared, “Around 3,000 congregants used to gather in the church on Christmas Day every year. Non-believers also used to visit the church out of curiosity and celebrate Christmas on this special day. But, this year that is not possible as it is not the appropriate time for such a mass gathering.”

Virtual celebration 

Since most of churches will remain closed on the Christmas Day, believers are celebrating Christmas virtually through Zoom meetings launched by their respective churches.

Interestingly, it is not the first time that the Christmas celebration is taking place through social media for Naya Gaun Church. It used to broadcast live video of Christmas celebrations at the church via Facebook in the previous years too. And this year they plan to preach sermon via Zoom for an hour on Christmas Day.

“There are around 1.5 million Christians in Nepal, and among them some churches and believers in remote areas do not have Internet access. We have only 100 families who have access to the Internet. So, we are preaching only sermon from the Zoom,” Shrestha informed.

However, not all are satisfied with only virtual Christmas celebrations, and one of them is 25-year-old Sarah Shrestha from Samakhusi, Kathmandu who has been participating in daily fellowship online. And for Christmas Day, she is "hosting a small programme for two hours in my office's hall. Only select members are invited".

She added, "There used to be performance of dramas and music on Christmas the theme in the past. But sadly, this year’s Christmas is limited to exchanging well-wishes and gifts only.”

Christina Rai, 28 from Kusunti, Lalitpur is celebrating Christmas with her peer group in a small compound. “Considering the safety of the elderly, pregnant women and children, we are celebrating this year’s Christmas with our peer group only. For them we will livestream the celebration via social media. At least it is satisfactory that we are united and celebrating it even through social media.”

Sandeep Shreshta, 31 and James Shrestha, 11, are missing going to church, visiting relatives as well as various Christmas-related programmes, and are adjusting themselves at home for the celebrations. James said, “Till last year, I used to get gifts, chocolates, clothes from Santa at a party palace on Christmas Day. My parents have told me that they will give me gifts this year. I am excited but I am sad to miss dancing and celebrating with my friends from the church.”

“I am celebrating Christmas with my family at home, and will join other people via Zoom. It is a bit disappointing to celebrate Christmas from Zoom only because not all the Church-goers are familiar about Zoom meeting,” shared Sandeep.

Father Richard is sad having to miss out on the joyful celebration in the church, yet he highlighted the positive side of celebrating Christmas virtually. "Many people used to share that they have got busy due to their jobs, unable to spend time with family. But COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to spend and celebrate Christmas only with family members, at home. We can greet and meet through online participation in Zoom too.”