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Christmas in North Sulawesi, Indonesia

10 Christmas Facts About Christmas in North Sulawesi

Indonesia is widely known as being a predominantly Muslim country so have you ever wondered what happens here in North Sulawesi at Christmas time? Do we even celebrate Christmas?

1. Is There “Christmas” in North Sulawesi?

North Sulawesi is actually a predominantly Christian area and the answer to whether we celebrate Christmas is a resounding, “Yes!” and it’s just as much a time of merriment and good will here as it is in western countries. You’ll hear people wishing each other “Selamat Hari Natal” (Merry Christmas) and you might be surprised to know that there are numerous traditions and customs here that are identical to in the west, some that are almost similar but have a Sulawesi twist to them and some that are, well… completely different. Read on to find out more…

Christmas is the biggest annual celebration in North Sulawesi

Christmas is the biggest annual celebration in North Sulawesi

2. What About Christmas Trees?

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas in the west without a decorated Christmas tree taking up prime position. Here in North Sulawesi it’s no different and just like in the west some people will have a “real” tree whereas other will have a synthetic one. Traditionally everyone had real trees which came from (and still do) Tomohon in the highlands. Much like in the west as synthetic trees became more readily available in the stores and malls many people invested in a tree that they can use year after year. Trees here are decorated the same way as they are in the west with baubles, tinsel and lights.

3. Is There Christmas Music?

Do Jingle Bells, Mariah Carey and the Jackson 5 drive you crazy every year? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Here in North Sulawesi music is a big part of everyday life and Christmas is no exception. Christmas music is piped in to the malls in Manado, played on the radio and in peoples’ homes and it’s the same familiar western hits that you hear each Christmas at home. The only difference musically is the religious songs which are sung in Indonesian but you’ll recognise many of the melodies – as well as hearing some beautiful new carols and hymns specific to North Sulawesi.

Church tower in manado

Church tower and the Manado skyline at sunset

4. And Christmas Presents Too?

It’s the season for giving here too and presents are given to close friends and family just as they are at home. Presents are usually exchanged on the 25th December and opened on that day but just as we do in the west, presents are sometimes given earlier to people you may not see on the big day – still the wrapping stays on until the 25th!

5. How About Midnight Mass?

While we traditionally attend church at midnight on the 24th to celebrate the birth of Jesus here in North Sulawesi the main service is at 7pm on the 24th which makes it easier for families with children to attend too. This is one of the biggest church services of the year.

Church services are a big part of Christmas in North Sulawesi

Church services are a big part of Christmas in North Sulawesi

6. Roast Turkey … and all of those yummy trimmings?

If you celebrate Christmas in North Sulawesi and you are expecting a plump roasted turkey you will be disappointed. However, if you like pork, pork and more pork then you’ll be in heaven! Pork (Babi) is the traditional festive meat here and it’s not limited to one dish. Most families will cook huge amounts of food at Christmas and a variety of pork dishes will be included. Here are some favorites; Babi Buluh (pork cooked with spices inside a bamboo stick which is then cut in half length ways and served in the bamboo, it’s delicious and made for special occasions), satay babi (an Indonesian classic of skewered meat cooked over coconut husks and served with peanut sauce), babi kecap (pork in a sweet soy sauce), babi rica (pork cooked with rica rica spices – very hot!), babi bumbu (pork cooked in a bumbu sauce which is a mix of local herbs and aromatics), pork ribs (with a Sulawesi version of barbeque sauce) and of course this wouldn’t be Indonesia without rice so “nasi goring babi” is served along side (pork fried rice).

Pork Satay is a traditional dish at Christmas time

Pork Satay is a traditional dish at Christmas time

7. Christmas Shutdown?

Unfortunately, just as in the west we have moved towards a 24 hour shopping culture and not everything closes on Christmas day, it is similar here in the major towns and cities. While small stores and “warungs” (local restaurants) will be closed over the Christmas period, the major malls will open their doors on the 25th albeit not until after lunch to give everbody time to attend church in the morning.

8. What Happens On Christmas Day?

Of course, the highlight of Christmas is spending time with family and loved ones and this tradition is felt more than ever in North Sulawesi. The morning church service starts the day at 9.00am and from there people either return to their homes or visit family and friends. For families that choose to spend the day at home they will have been preparing for days in advance by cooking and baking and cooking and baking! They’ll prepare the pork dishes, numerous vegetable and side dishes as well as hoards of cakes and cookies for their family and friends that will visit. There is an “Open House” concept where family and friends go from house to house and enjoy the food, hospitality and Christmas atmosphere. Usually people will visit 3 or 4 houses during the day.

Christmas in North Sulawesi is an exciting time for children

Christmas in North Sulawesi is an exciting time for children

9. Children At Christmas?

Of course there are presents and cookies and games but for the children the open house policy is similar to that of Halloween in the west. While the adults will call in on 3 or 4 households the children will visit maybe 7 or 8 so that they can see their friends and collect candy and cookies from each house. Some families will give “Donat Natal” (Christmas Donation) to the children instead of sweet treats. “Gifts” of Donat Natal are usually around Rp 2,000 – Rp 5,000 (approx. US 15 cents to 40 cents) which is just enough to go and buy their candies of choice!

10. What About Boxing Day (26th December)?

In the west this is often another day for seeing extended family and friends, for feeling generally overfed from the day before, for watching Christmas movies and for eating leftover turkey. Here in North Sulawesi the morning of the 26th is a time for baptisms. Many families will wait until the 26th to have their babies and children baptised as food is already plentiful, few people are working and it’s another reason to enjoy Open Houses for a second day. Morning church service on the 26th is from 9am to 11am which is longer than usual to allow for the baptisms.
The only other difference you’ll experience between North Sulawesi and “home” at Christmas is that there’ll be some exceptional diving at some of Indonesia’s best dive sites here in North Sulawesi – that’s got to be one of the best Christmas presents ever! Who needs turkey……..

Dive Manado, Bunaken, Bangka and Lembeh

Here at Murex we are diving all year round – including Christmas!

Of course the diving here is stunning all year round and the people of North Sulawesi are warm and friendly whatever the season. If you’d like to treat yourself and explore the diversity and experience the hospitality of North Sulawesi in 2017 we’d love to welcome you to one of our beautiful dive resorts.

Join us for our Passport to Paradise and visit 3 distinctive diving destinations in one trip. Incredible walls in the Bunaken Marine Park, stunning reefs around Bangka Island and the world’s best muck diving in the Lembeh Strait. Hassle free booking and boat diving transfers between resorts means limited travel time and maximum dive time as well as the opportunity to dive at some of North Sulawesi’s most remote and pristine dive sites.

For more information contact us at

Thank you for reading and “Selamat Hari Natal dan Tahun Baru” (Wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year).


Dive, Snorkel and Explore More with us in beautiful North Sulawesi.

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