busra commune, Mondolkiri province – Young, old and teenaged crowded inside the rough wooden church in Lameh Ty Pram village, about an hour and a half travel northeast of Mondolkiri’s provincial capital, Sen Monorom.
The ethnic minority churchgoers watched from simple wooden pews-set up inside and outside the church building-as group after group took the stage to belt out Christian hymns and Christmas carols in both the Khmer and Banong languages, accompanied by the twanging of electric guitars, keyboard and drums.
This was Christmas day at the Lan Pi Protestant church, where the religious celebration focused on fellowship, forgiveness, family and food.
But it wasn’t all guitars and “Jingle Bells.”
An assembly of costumed Banong elders danced in the ethnic minority’s traditional style, to music played on traditional brass gongs and other instruments.
“To kill and rob is a sin, but to disobey God is a sin also,” said Prum Sothea, a congregation leader who gave Thursday’s sermon to the 100 or so assembled churchgoers.
“This is why we need to celebrate Noel because God is so good that he created humans even though they commit many sins, and he sent Jesus. The good thing about God is that he loves not only Khmer or Banong, but all,” he said.
The Lan Li Protestant church has been in Lameh Ty Pram village since 1986, and was the first church to be built in the commune, said Nhoun Truy, who leads the 260-person congregation.
Now, there are three other Christian churches in Lameh Ty Pram village-one Catholic church and three Protestant, he added.
This year’s service was the biggest ever, according to Nhoun Truy, drawing members from seven other sister churches from throughout the area.
“I noticed that more people joined the celebration of Christmas Day, probably because we have more performances and more people understand the meaning of the celebration,” Nhoun Truy said.
Kak Lok, 19, said after the service and the congregation’s meal that she had never heard of Santa or Christmas trees. But she said she celebrates “Noel” every year “because Christmas day for me is the day that Jesus Christ came to earth and saved the people.”
“If I don’t celebrate Christmas day, it means I don’t honor God,” she said.
The Banong choral groups had been rehearsing for the Christmas day performance since October.
Sray Chak, 60, said she has been celebrating Christmas for 16 years.
“I don’t know the meaning clearly, but I only know that it is important to my Christian people to pray to God and it is a very happy celebration,” she said.