Christmas is just around the corner, but there are no tinsel-laden trees or Santa hats in at least three countries–Brunei Darussalam, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan–which banned or have curbed celebrating the festive season.
In the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei Darussalam, celebrations have been banned under a shift toward hardline Islamic law.
In Sri Lanka, no less than the leader of nation’s Catholic Church urged priests not to put up Christmas trees in their churches, saying they had no religious significance.
Tajikistan has also tightened restrictions on celebrations of the traditional festive season in schools in the Central Asian country, banning Christmas trees and gift-giving.
This year’s restrictions are the toughest yet implemented by the former Soviet country, which has been toning down celebrations of the New Year holiday for some time, notably banning Russia’s version of Father Christmas from television screens in 2013.
The all-powerful leader of Brunei Darussalam, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the world’s richest men, announced last year that he would push ahead with the introduction of sharia law, eventually including tough penalties such as death by stoning or severing of limbs.
Religious leaders in the oil-rich sultanate warned this month that a ban on Christmas would be strictly enforced, for fear that Muslims could be led astray.
“Using religious symbols like crosses, lighting candles, putting up Christmas trees, singing religious songs, sending Christmas greetings… are against Islamic faith,” imams said in sermons published in the local press.
Punishment for violating the ban is a five-year jail sentence, and the government warned last year that Muslims would be committing an offense if they so much as wore “hats or clothes that resemble Santa Claus.”
Although Christians are free to celebrate, they have been told not to do so “excessively and openly,” in a directive that has had a chilling effect on the Southeast Asian nation, which sits on a corner of Borneo island.
Businesses have been warned to take decorations down and authorities have stepped up spot checks across the capital. Hotels popular among Western tourists that once boasted dazzling lights and giant Christmas trees are now barren of festive decor.
“This will be the saddest Christmas ever for me,” a Malaysian expatriate resident told Agence France-Presse, requesting not to be named for fear of reprisals from authorities.
“The best part of Christmas day is waking up and having that feeling that it is Christmas, but there’s just none of that here and you just feel deprived.”
“All this is just because of what the Sultan wants. In 2013, I saw many Muslims together with Christians having a good time at their house parties. Everything was normal and good,” he said.
Most people are too scared to speak up about the ban, and while some privately gripe about the rule they know there is little to be done.
“I will be working on Christmas after church. We just have to cope,” a Filipino waitress — one of Brunei’s many guest workers — told AFP.
According to the Philippine Embassy, there are about 21,000 Filipinos residing and working in Brunei, of which 12 percent are professionals, including doctors, nurses and engineers.
Some people dared to post pictures on social media depicting Christmas cheer using the hashtag #MyTreedom, part of a global campaign to highlight oppression against Christians.
At least one church in the capital sported decorations that were visible from the street, a rare glimpse of holiday cheer in the otherwise decoration-free city.
“The ban is ridiculous. It projects this image that Islam does not respect the rights of other religions to celebrate their faith,” said a Muslim mother in the capital, also too scared to provide her name.
“Islam teaches us to respect one another and I believe it starts with respecting other religions even if what is being banned are ornamental displays.”
Others were more tempered, and urged the prohibition to be respected.
“It is an Islamic country and so with respect to the law, churches need to keep decorations indoors,” said a Christian Bruneian, unfazed by the strict rules.
“The meaning of Christmas for us isn’t all about Christmas decorations.”
The archbishop of Colombo (Sri Lanka), Malcolm Ranjith, was quoted in a statement as telling clergymen to “try to avoid putting up Christmas trees inside the churches.”
“These do not belong to the sacred significance of Christmas but are more connected to social and family celebrations… They have also become symbols of Christmas in malls and public squares,” the cardinal said.
Sri Lanka is a mainly Buddhist country but around 1.2 million of its overall population of 21 million people are Catholics.
In Tajikistan, a decree by the education ministry prohibits “the use of fireworks, festive meals, gift-giving and raising money” for New Year celebrations as well as “the installation of a Christmas tree either living [felled wood]or artificial” in schools and universities.
While other ex-Soviet states have been busy setting up big festive trees on the main squares of major cities, a tree will only appear briefly before New Year in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe and is expected to be removed early in 2016.
The December-January holiday season is contested in Tajikistan, a majority-Muslim but secular republic where the population is divided over the benefits of Soviet and Russian influences in society.
On New Year’s night in 2011-2012, a man dressed in the red robes worn by Father Christmas and his Russian equivalent “Father Frost” was stabbed dead by unknown assailants outside the home of relatives in Dushanbe.
While the man’s family claimed the attack had religious motives, police refuted the account and said the three attackers were intoxicated at the time.
Days before the murder, the country’s leading cleric had urged Muslims not to observe New Year traditions.
Other holidays perceived as alien to Tajikistan’s culture had come under pressure in recent years.
In 2013 and 2014, fancy dress zombies and vampires were reportedly detained by police as the government opposed any Halloween celebrations.
The country also applies strict regulations to occasions such as funerals and weddings and fined one man around $600 for marking his birthday with friends in an Irish-themed pub in Dushanbe earlier this year.