An Exiled NoëlFor those of you who celebrate Christmas, the holiday probably involves a gathering with loved ones or relatives you feel obligated to visit, along with the usual barrage of office parties, sweets, Secret Santas and seasonal carols. The day itself finds you surrounded by unwrapped gifts as you mull over which to keep, which to return. If you’re really in the spirit, you’ll pop in a CD of favorite Christmas tunes to provide that holiday feeling while you gorge on a huge meal, visions of credit card bills dancing in your head. Probably the last “gift” on your mind is Jesus, the gift that–as the spooky old carol goes–“saves us all from Satan’s powers when we have gone astray.” Comfort and joy indeed.
North Carolina’s resettled Montagnard tribesmen, on the other hand, will spend December 25 observing a tradition that began back in the Vietnamese highlands, a tradition they furtively observed in exile in the Cambodian jungles, and carry on today in their adopted country: a Noel pageant, complete with seasonal hymns and a re-enactment of the Nativity, followed by a communal meal of native dishes. The North Ridge Alliance in Raleigh, along with Montagnard churches in Charlotte and Greensboro, will host these pageants, which blend the Montagnard language and culture with the Christmas story.
Montagnard Christmas pageants have changed little since the early celebrations started by the evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA) groups and other Christians back in the early 1960s in Vietnam. The Montagnards (“hill people” in French) are actually composed of 30-some tribes thought to be of a Malaysian and Polynesian descent. They were ethnically and linguistically different from the native Vietnamese, and as a minority, they suffered discrimination: They were called moi (savages) by the South Vietnamese. As a result, the CMA found many of the highland people–practicing animists who lived in bamboo and thatch long-houses–ready to embrace a doctrine that preached the equality of all men.
The Rev. Charles Long of CMA and his wife, E.G., spent months in Saigon learning Vietnamese before they struck out to the Central Highlands. Living in the Pleiku district and learning the dialect of the Jarai Montagnard tribe, Long and his wife lived in a 300-foot bamboo and thatch longhouse, sleeping in the communal room in the middle of the structure. The room was hung with the skulls of sacrificed water buffalo, which the Jarai would “feed” by stuffing the mouths with green grass every day.
According to Long, the Jarai practiced a religion of fear, with sickness and bad luck coming from angry spirits who could only be appeased by a blood sacrifice. Many tribe members sported copper bracelets, not as ornaments, but to show how many water buffalo they owed the demons. Some wore as many as seven.
Long says the Montagnards were struck by the blood sacrifice of Jesus. When a Montagnard converted to Christianity, the Jarai pastors would hold a ceremony in the village church where the person would take off his or her bracelets and hang them on a post, declaring themselves debt-free. “When they heard of Jesus–that he had more power than any of those spirits–they were released from being afraid,” Long says.
In their 14 years with the CMA in Vietnam, the Longs put on Christmas pageants everywhere–from a leprosarium to tiny villages that could only be reached by helicopter–converting and training pastors, who in turn put on their own Christmas pageants. In Pleiku province, many of their early converts were high school students. “We’d start practicing [the Christmas pageant] in October,” Long recalls. They’d perform at two to three villages a day, carrying their lunch in pouches. This “touring group” learned all the scenes of the Christmas story: the angel’s announcement to Mary, Joseph’s dream, the angel visiting the shepherds, the trek to Bethlehem, and the arrival of the Wise Men.
By the early ’60s, the Montagnards had become part of the resistance movement against the communists, and were soon recruited and trained by U.S. Special Forces to fight. By the war’s end in 1975, their villages destroyed and their population ravaged, the Montagnards had fled to the Cambodian jungles. They survived on roots, suffered from malaria and other diseases, and lost people to tiger attacks.
Despite obstacles, Montagnards continued their way of life, including the annual Christmas pageants.
Y Pat Buonya recalls the pageants of their exile: “Every year we’d get together. We have to go from jungle to jungle, area to area, to make a Christmas celebration.” I ask Y Pat if he has any photos of those jungle pageants. He looks at me incredulously. “Well, we have no cameras in the jungle, because you have to send the film back to Vietnam. When they [the government] find it, the person who brought it will then be in the jail.”
Although the Montagnards had beenallies, it was years before the United States became aware that any of the jungle fighters had survived, when some of the refugees made it through Cambodia to Thailand. Y Pat came to the United States in 1986 with one of the first waves of refugees. As a Montagnard who spoke English, he was an invaluable aid to the resettlement program. He’s worked with Lutheran Family Services in Raleigh since he arrived, helping his people with doctors visits, travel visas, work programs and other issues.
At this time, North Carolina has the largest community of Central Highland peoples outside Vietnam, with 3,000 individuals resettled in Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro (Raleigh is mainly the Jarai tribe, Charlotte is Rhade, Greensboro is Koho Mnong).
For the Montagnard Christians in North Carolina, the Christmas pageants are still the high point of their church year.
“In Vietnam, it’s different from United States,” says Lap Siu, who arrived here in ’97 when he was 18. When Lap and his family arrived, they had to adjust to a Christmas represented by a fat bearded guy in a furry red suit as well as an ornament-bedecked indoor tree.
“Back in 1997, when my family arrive here, it was the first time I saw the Christmas celebration in America, kind of weird to me and my family because we have never seen a Santa Claus,” says Lap, who spoke no English when he arrived. “I really like the way we celebrated Christmas in Vietnam, because all the Christian people would gather together and pray for God,” Lap says. The prayers would be followed by a communal meal. “Every time we eat together, we have to have rice,” he says. “Beside rice, we have tomatoes, corn, meat–chicken, beef, pork. It’s kind of spicy; we love spicy food,” he says, laughing.
This year, Lap Nui and his family are celebrating Christmas with all the American trimmings. They put up a tree, hung the lights and sent Christmas cards back to relatives in Vietnam. “We put a little Santa Claus on the tree.” These days, Lap studies, plays guitar at his church and is working in two musical groups: a “modern” band with guitar, bass and drums, and a 15-piece Montagnard traditional group, which is putting out a CD soon. Lap talks about singing Christmas carols–“the same ones you do”–and breaks into “Silent Night” in the lilting, melodic Jarai dialect. The sentiment of the Christmas hymn folds into Lap’s pride in keeping his language and the memories of his people alive.