Coming up to a year in Bali, we were ready to escape back home to Perth for an Australian Christmas. We arrived a week before Christmas Day, glad to have missed the mad rush leading up to it, and were able to slot right into just the family celebrations.
It was disappointing to not see how they celebrate this Christian tradition on a Hindu island in a Muslim country. Before we left, all we saw of Christmas was a tree or two at a western restaurant. The Balinese observe the Christmas Day holiday, and the people we asked said they exchange gifts, but I don’t think they make a big deal of it. They already have so many other ceremonies and celebrations on the calendar, so it is a relatively minor event.
On the other hand, one of the most important celebrations for the Balinese is Galungan. This year the Galungan holiday time corresponded to the Christmas period. It is not always the case, as that holiday is on a 210 day cycle. We found that Galungan has many similarities to the Christian holy day.
The most obvious sign that Galungan is approaching is the display of penjors, which some people have dubbed the Balinese Christmas tree. The whole island sprouts these tall bamboo poles, usually decorated with rice stalks, coconut leaves, and flowers, and erected in front of every residence entrance. It makes for a very pretty streetscape while driving around the villages. At each front gate, you’ll also find small bamboo altars, each one bearing woven palm-leaf offerings for the spirits.
Another part of Galungan is Ngelawang, which brought memories of the Christmas choir roaming the streets singing carols. We saw this being performed by a group of children with a bangkung barong (a barong pig figure), as they paraded around our village accompanied by a very noisy gamelan. Not quite the sweet harmonies of carols, but you can hear them coming! They go from house to house and perform a dance to drive out evil spirits. Afterwards, the homeowner will donate money to the group.
So we were fortunate to see both of these celebrations at this time, and got a small taste of each.