Baptist Church in Providence blends Liberian, Western holiday traditions

PROVIDENCE — At the Westside Tabernacle Baptist Church, home to the oldest Liberian congregation in Rhode Island, dozens of children received their annual Christmas gifts from Santa in a sanctuary lit with white lights and shimmering stars.

"What does Christmas stand for?" Santa said as he moved among the exuberant youngsters.

“It's Jesus's birthday!" one boy shouted.

Why do we celebrate the New Year?

"Because that's when Jesus's birthday is …"

Well, not exactly …

“It's the first day of Christmas!"

This Santa at the church on Bridgham Street fit the red-suited, white-bearded image familiar to American children, but the Liberian "Santa" is based on a somewhat different concept, says the Rev. Matthew Kai, the church's pastor.

"Here, Santa gives. Over there [in Liberia], Santa receives," says Kai. The folklore goes that Santa "got in a ship, and the ship capsized, and the ocean blew him" toward Liberia. "He needs some money to get back" to the West.

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