A disturbing Christmas
One of my earliest Christmas memories is of being dragged out of bed by my grandmother and then being dragged on some more, to attend the midnight mass at a nearby Church. This was not our regular church - I used to call it our "Church of Convenience", since it is the Church we went to for Christmas and Easter midnight services, when our regular Church was either too far away or it did not have these special midnight services. Not surprisingly then, these memories are of a sleepy Christmas, only to be jolted awake by the loud sound of church bells and crackers at midnight. They were not only sleepy; looking back, they were innocent Christmases too - not really knowing what was happening or why. Christmas meant nothing more than stars, lights, the sound of drums from carollers and the sight of white bearded old men in red suits. An innocent Christmas?
And then I became slightly older and before I knew it, Christmas had become a time for the show of splendour. You see, we lived in a neighbourhood of mostly middle class folks. My house and the one next to ours, were one of the two "better" houses on the street. Though I would never admit it, the house next to ours was much bigger and definitely more beautiful than ours. It had one storey more than ours, their pure white ambassador car with dark film on its windows looked distinctly classier than ours and in the days when I prided on the cassette tape recorder that I had, they had an audio system which could be played loud enough for me to become sufficiently envious. They even had a computer (which was unheard of back in those days!) with a designated room on the second floor that I was privileged to be invited to see once or twice! And so for me, Christmas was payback time - they would generally hang two Christmas stars in their porch; it was not very difficult for me to convince my unsuspecting father to get an additional star for our own porch. If they had flickering, dancing lights covering the front of their house, we would have a slightly longer garland of the same variety. A slightly bigger Christmas tree, that too freshly cut, was not very difficult to procure either. But the killer punch was in the building of the pulkoodu1. Typical nativity displays in the neighbourhood, including the house next door, would be built on a platform roughly the size of a small coffee table. But our pulkoodu was humongous with its base area as big as a large dining table! The nativity figurines themselves were also correspondingly five or ten times the normal size. The extra stars, the longer "disco" lights, the taller Christmas tree and the larger pulkoodu - these meant that we closed off the year as winners, with me silently orchestrating the victory! Looking back, it was a Christmas of show, glitter and splendour. Come to think of it, I wonder if it is much different now, all around! Larger Christmas trees and brighter decorations! A pompous Christmas?
Christmases were and still are mostly about us and our families. Appam2 and chicken curry for breakfast, a long list of delicacies for the Christmas lunch and new clothes generally (though as a family, we were slightly backward in this regard!). Since my grandmother stayed with us, we would usually have all the cousins come over for Christmas. So while it was technically more than just our own family, I can't get over the feeling that it was still all about us, albeit as an extended family! True, a few who could not afford a meal would come around on the day and would be given a share of the lunch, but that was more incidental than anything else. Nowadays, in addition to the Christmas meals, we ponder long and hard where to getaway as a family for Christmas, we choose the best and most exotic locations; after all we deserve the break and the quality family time that it promises. If just a couple, then what better time than this for a sweet romantic holiday? So, have things really changed much? Or are we still, maybe unconsciously, still celebrating for our own sakes? A selfish Christmas?
Many of my Christmases, especially when in college and in hostel, were about just going through the motions. I attended the Christmas service almost mechanically and even went for a few caroling rounds, but it was more about somehow getting them over with, to be back at the hostel where more interesting things awaited. All that was ingrained in me during my innocent childhood Christmases did make me drag myself to do certain things, almost ritualistically, but there was no genuineness or sincerity in my actions, whatever they were. The sad fact is that I can still remember Christmases in the recent past, long past my hostel days, where there was a similar sense of just going through the motions. An indifferent Christmas?
Most of my recent Christmases though, can be characterised by one word - hectic. Even though we generally take a break from work during this time, I doubt if it is really a break. Journeys, holidays, visits, shopping, events, practice sessions, services, carolling, dinners - all contribute to making it one of the busiest, if not the busiest month of the year. We are literally running around the whole month, complaining of the lack of time. No time for rest with time only for chores and checklists. Sometimes even if we feel like slowing down, we feel helpless and are dragged along with the crowd. A hectic Christmas?
But this Christmas has been quite different. Thus far, it has been a Christmas which has moved me beyond words. Through a series of events, I was exposed to certain harsh realities of life. Not that I did not know of them, but it was just that my eyes were closed or my ears were not open enough to notice them as starkly. It was disturbing to realize that there are millions for whom the Christmas message of hope and joy must ring hollow. It was disturbing to realize, that sitting in our comfort zones far away, we cannot even begin to imagine the tragic circumstances that engulf so much of humanity. Those in danger of their very lives. Those fleeing from the place they called home. Christmas means nothing to the millions who are going through times of loss. Times of grief. Times of loneliness. Times of hopelessness. Times of despair. Times when yesterday was a nightmare and tomorrow seems dark and bleak. While Christmas indeed offers the message of hope, joy and peace to such souls, I worry that the message does not reach most of them. And even if it does reach them, in many cases it simply means nothing to them. For them and for many of us, it just makes no difference. It was disturbing to realize how empty and even vain, our Christmas wishes to each other for a "Merry Christmas" must sound to these souls. While these events did shake and disturb me, I am not sure if it will amount to anything much more than this emotional outburst; though I sincerely hope it will, at least in some small way.
And so, more than the joy of Christmas that we usually wish each other, forgive me for wishing you a disturbing Christmas, this time round. And praying that we are disturbed enough to make a small difference, a small impact to some lost soul, somewhere near or far.
It has been a disturbing Christmas. For me.
1pulkoodu - a display of the nativity scene (or the manger scene) at homes during the Christmas season, representing the scene of the birth of Jesus. Nativity figurines typically include statues of baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary, shepherds, angels, the wise men and a few farm animals.
2appam - a type of pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk, it is a typical breakfast food of Christians in Kerala.