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Keeping Christmas traditions alive in Melaka’s Portuguese settlement

Despite the Covid-19 restrictions that remain in place, the villagers are eager to celebrate Christmas in full traditional swing.

Danisyah Dalily
3 minute read
Children present Christmas songs at an open-air carolling session while Santa Claus conducts, at the Melaka Portuguese settlement in Ujong Pasir.
Children present Christmas songs at an open-air carolling session while Santa Claus conducts, at the Melaka Portuguese settlement in Ujong Pasir.

Every year, the Portuguese settlers in Melaka celebrate Christmas with joy and gusto, holding fast to the traditions their ancestors brought with them when they arrived in the country many years ago.

While the Covid-19 pandemic put a dampener on festivities last year, they hope for a better Christmas this time around.

For weeks now, the residents have been making preparations in eager anticipation of Christmas Day.

In her kitchen at home, Marie Theisera is busy baking up a storm. Some of the cakes are for her family to enjoy while others will be delivered to customers, seveal of whom had placed orders as early as October.

The star of the baking activities is the sugee cake, followed closely by the traditional Christmas fruit cake.

Marie and Martin Theisera put the finishing touches on this year’s Christmas cakes.

“For us Eurasians, sugee cake is very important during Christmas,” she told MalaysiaNow.

Other must-haves include susagong, bajik, dodol, tarts and bolu koku which are particular to the Eurasian community.

“I think only Eurasians make them,” Marie said.

For more than 30 years now, baking has been part of her Christmas routine. From October to November, she bakes fruit cakes, then she moves on to making pineapple tarts. The baking season ends with sugee cake, which has the shortest shelf-life of all.

Tradition plays a big role in the villagers’ Christmas celebrations. Many have intermarried with those from other races and religions but when it comes to Christmas, nothing changes the way they observe the season.

Over the years, these traditions have made the settlement in Ujong Pasir a popular destination for tourists who come from near and far to enjoy the Christmas atmosphere.

With a number of Covid-19 restrictions eased on the back of a successful vaccination programme, the villagers are expecting distant relatives and friends to return home for Christmas this year.

A villager parks his motorcycle outside his house in the Melaka Portuguese settlement which, like many others in the neighbourhood, have been decorated with garlands and lights.

But while the celebration will be more lively than they were last Christmas, basic SOPs remain.

Traditional house-to-house carolling is not allowed although the villagers are permitted to hold outdoor performances with police permission and strict physical distancing as well as the mandatory use of face masks.

During better years, groups of carollers both young and old would make their way around the neighbourhoods, singing Christmas songs.

This year, though, only one group is allowed to perform, and the villagers have given the spot to the children who are the most excited about celebrating Christmas.

Throughout the settlement, traditional Christmas decorations are visible at every house, from garlands and wreaths to Nativity scenes and the ubiquitous evergreens.

Meanwhile fairy lights swing overhead, lighting up entire neighbourhoods at dusk.

There is also the traditional Portuguese decoration of “lalerlaler” – crushed seashells which can be found in front yards and even along the roads.

Peter Gomes, a former village chief, said their ancestors would use lalerlaler to imitate snow.

“We don’t get snow here, so we use lalerlaler to get the feel. It’s something we do traditionally,” he said.

“We live beside the sea, so back then our people would use lalerlaler for decoration because it was the only thing that was available.”

Each year, the lalerlaler from the previous Christmas is thrown out and replaced – part of tradition for the Portuguese villagers.

They hope to keep this and many other practices alive for generations to come, so that those who visit the settlement will be able to share in the way they celebrate Christmas even before the day arrives.

And, like many others around the country, their hope this Christmas is for the pandemic to end so that friends and families will be able to gather once more.

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