I often like to joke that Christmas is the one time in the year that successfully brings out my “Catholic” in a big way. It’s not that I get overtly spiritual or prayerful, but I am a traditionalist at heart and the family customs of the season always appeal to me much more than in other seasons.
I feel fortunate to have been born in a family whose religious and cultural roots go all the way back to the Portuguese/Goan colonies in India, with a dash of British in there as well. It’s where my grandparents and their parents were from, and the cultural customs they carried with them to where I live now and how devoutly they practised them have always enriched the season of Christmas for me. I know without all of that I probably wouldn’t have had much to enjoy come Christmastime today.
They are the ones who taught me to appreciate and respect tradition as well as diversity, the importance of kinship and community, but above all, I learned from them how Christmas is universal and not limited to a single community, religious or otherwise.
Imagine my surprise then, when a few years ago a local news channel conducted an interview with a few Christian families during the holidays and talked endlessly about how Christians celebrate “their Christmas.” The show was quite literally presented like some sort of classroom lecture. “Christians do this at their Christmas,” “this is how they do this at their Christmas,” “In Christian homes and churches you will see blah blah blah during their Christmas.”
“Since when,” I asked my husband, “do people here need to be taught about the holidays, and why in the world is the season being shown as a Christian only thing?”
He was as stumped as I was, because both of us had grown up with wide circles of friends, many of them non-Christians, and we could not imagine any of them not knowing what the holiday season was all about. These were the people who would spend hours in our homes helping to decorate our Christmas trees, then we’d trot into their homes and drape streamers on their trees. Entire neighbourhoods would come out of their houses in the week before Christmas and together hoist up massive stars over main streets and lanes. Before that they would spend weeks constructing those same stars, fixing them up with lights and tinsel.
Non-Christian kids who were our neighbours and friends joined us at Christmas parties, and all of us received those ‘magical’ gifts from Santa who whizzed in on a sleigh complete with oddly donkeyish looking reindeer. We went caroling together, from lane to lane in large groups stopping at every house regardless of which religion the family living there followed. No one turned us away, in fact they welcomed us with smiles and sometimes Christmas song requests of their own. We’d sing at church events, attend holiday dances organized by local clubs and parishes, the ever fun-loving Parsi community, hotels and various homes in different parts of the city.
I had no idea what had happened to that culture, I had no idea why I saw so many people within my own country and in neighbouring ones claiming to know nothing about Christmas, or alternatively thinking of it as just a Christian thing. That’s not really how it worked in the rest of the world, so why were people in South Asia behaving like this? Why were there so many people in this region insisting on remaining on the outside looking in on something being celebrated globally? Of course, deep down I knew the answer, had been aware of the growing intolerance around me, watched scores of people leave our homelands for more accepting and distant shores, the rise in religious conservatism which secluded people more than it bonded them with community and country.
Just last week the huz and I were at a pre-Christmas dinner at a friend’s home, and one of the other guests had brought along a musical instrument. A bunch of us began to sing songs which included holiday ones, while another group just sat and looked on (mostly giving us the wtf side-eye as if we were misbehaving at someone’s wake.) After a particularly boisterous version of Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph medley, a gentleman from a third group of elderly (and completely non-Christian) people told us to “knock it off and sing something everyone could join in and sing along with.”
He and a female from his group then proceeded to serenade us all with a beautiful rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ which nearly knocked our socks off. Neither of them stopped there, and soon their entire group was singing everything from Silent Night to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and Joy to the World. What a performance they gave us all.
Needless to say the side-eye crowd were in shock (although why people in their twenties and early thirties should have been is beyond me.) One of them asked the gentleman where he and the others had learned “those Christian Christmas carols” and the old man’s response was classic. He sipped from his glass of whiskey, glared down at the guy and said, “You don’t learn about Christmas, young man, you experience it.”
I wanted to hug the old guy, so I totally did, and I wanted to stick my tongue out at the side-eye WTFers and flip them the bird for being such party poopers, but the huz got in the way asking “If I sing you Silent Night will you hug me too?” and totally ruined the moment.
Call it the holidays, X-Mas, or Christmas itself, celebrate it with mass, or a plastic snowman on your front porch, mistletoe on your door frame, spend endless hours preparing traditional fare or sip hot chocolate and listen to holiday music alone, go Grinch if you must, but there is no denying that this festival is a global celebration, unmatched and unlike any other in the world.
The beauty of the holiday season, always, I believe, lies in its openness and acceptance. There are no closed doors on which visitors need to knock before they are welcomed in to ‘sample’ Christmas. The season itself is all encompassing, whether you acknowledge its pagan origins, revere its Christian message, or enjoy its secular aspects. I think this is why it is celebrated with such zeal in almost every corner of the world, why entire villages, towns and even countries put in tremendous effort and time to making it as beautiful as they can. Some use new and creative ways, others hold fast to age old tradition, even more join in adding their own sparkle and warmth.
I’m going to take a moment and give a special nod of gratitude to my city folk, the many Karachites who have begun to break the mold of intolerance and celebrate this wonderful season once again.
The holidays are right there for the taking, and it is everywhere, so no one can really miss it if they choose not to. There is no glass window you need to stand on the other side of and observe festivities, the magic, the beauty, and don’t let anyone tell you that there is one or should be one.
Here’s wishing you all a season of peace, goodwill and most of all, acceptance.
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Anne is a fiction writer and blogger, and a former hotelier living in the sprawling coastal city of Karachi, Pakistan, with her husband, two kids and a pet fish. A city girl at heart, she likes her coffee strong, books always within arm’s reach, perfumes by the boatload, music of the old school variety, beaches sans the crowds, cozy cafes early in the mornings, and intimate encounters with Jack Daniels on Saturday nights.