24 December 2014

The many Christmases of a tropical island

Christmas, in this island where Christians are a small minority tending towards an even smaller slice in the population pie, is celebrated as though it is the religion of the majority.  Well, at least in the major cities.  It helps when countless retail outlets use Christmas to move stuff off the shelves.  Come Christmas time, in this tropical island that has never seen a snowflake ever, store windows get dotted with cotton-wool ‘snow’, draped in red and green, along with the inevitable Santa Clause positioned inside or made ‘live’ outside. 

This year is different. No, that’s not because it is the 10th anniversary of the tragic Boxing Day tsunami that took tens of thousands of lives and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless in 2004.  The Resplendent Island, in the aftermath of the tsunami could have been re-dubbed ‘The Land of Resilience’, for today, ten years later, there’s little evidence that it was hit by waves unlike any ever witnessed.  If Christmas is a bit off-color this year, metaphorically speaking, it is because there’s an important election coming up. 

The Presidential Election will be held on January 8, 2015.  Almost five years ago there was another Presidential Election.  Just like this one that was also dubbed ‘Too Close to Call’.  The incumbent (who is running for re-election again) Mahinda Rajapaksa won in a canter on that occasion.  Everyone was surprised.  Well, not everyone.  The most surprised were those in Colombo, who backed the former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka.  Perhaps their predictions were based on what (like-minded) friends said about personal preferences. 

This time, the contender has things going for him that Fonseka didn’t.  Regime-fatigue, drop in regime-popularity, greater levels of discontent, among other things.  And again, in Colombo for example, there’s growing excitement about the election.  It takes a big of gloss off Christmas, naturally.  The shops are there, appropriately frilled and ‘signed’, but conversations don’t drift in that direction.  It’s mostly about Mahinda, Mahinda’s cut-outs, why he should be loved or hated as the case may be, Maithripala, those in Maithree’s team and their histories, adding up numbers, making predictions etc. 

But then again, it is not that in other years people did nothing but talk about Christmas, Christmas shopping, Santa Clause, Christmas parties and gifts expected, purchased and planned to be purchased.  Christmas is all about color, but it is not just that.  

It is about Jesus Christ.  Ok, there’s controversy about the correct date of birth and the convenience of date-convergence with the Winter Solstice, the Roman midwinter festivals Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invecti.   These are trivialities where faith is concerned.  The fact remains that that Christmas is made for marketing.  Like Vesak (in recent times) or any other day held sacred by any religious community. 

And so we reflect thus:
A Christmas Advertisement
And so they went
from one store to the next
                to the next and next
all bedecked in Christmas color
melodied with Christmas cheer
the fake mistletoe, the red-nosed reindeer
and Santa too
the glitter and shine
the bells and lights,
all screaming ‘Purchase!’
all carrying the soft small print tag
‘In the name of Jesus’
(or was it the other way about?),
all laid out for them folks
armed with crisp currency notes
and easy plastic.
And they came,
they saw
they were glad too,
for they went away
duly garmented
while the raiment of the Savior
so visible all over
remained unvisited.
The eyes of the faithful
were fervent in prayer,

But then again, there’s a time to shop and a time to pray.  There’s a time to indulge and a time to give.  The Christmas of glitter, deals, shopping is not for those of the Christian faith alone.  It is for everyone.  A time of good cheer, overall festivity and even merry-making.  Christmas Eve is different and so is Christmas Day.  These are the days and moments of faith and for the faithful.  This is when the words of Jesus Christ are reflected on, when the worth of penitence is reflected on, and the life of the Savior is revisited and relevant lessons drawn. 

That Christmas is in every Christian home, in every church big and small, rich with history and embellishment and every church as poor and humble  as the Savior himself. That Christmas is not at odds with the articles of faith subscribed to by those belonging to other religious communities.  And it is in that sense that Christmas can truly be as ‘national’ as any other day or moment.  That Christmas cuts through the glitter without disturbing the grandeur and festivity, it passes light over the intrusion of the political moment. 

It brings hands together.  People together. Makes the world that much more tender.  A blessing, certainly.