Counting Christmases

Has Christmas been hijacked by commercialism? Or is there just just too much goodwill around to be picky and grouchy?

WITH just 10 days to go, Christmas, the season that some call “silly”, is right upon us; assaulting our senses from every direction, accompanied by countless connotations.

There’s no escaping the gigantic trees, for instance, dressed up to the nines in every shopping mall’s centre court. Glittery, shiny dresses entice desperate female shoppers from every retailer’s window. Fruit cakes, stollen and gingerbread men, culturally unfamiliar food, tempt us from every corner of the world.

Christmas has become a complex, convoluted mass of contradictions. With each passing year, the season’s insistent clamour grows louder, calling for jocularity, merry-making and nostalgia.

I remember one Christmas morning finding prettily-wrapped packages beside my pillow. I must have been about five or six years old, and I spent the rest of that day pouring soft drinks from my plastic decanter into its accompanying tiny tumblers, then offering them to visitors to my grandmother’s house.

While that is my earliest Christmas recollection, the following years’ experiences and memories vary. And the reasons for remembering are as different as could be: rushing to gather sweets that Santa had thrown from his red convertible, while circling the clock tower roundabout in a misty hillside town; as a young adult, striving to put together a Christmas Eve meal that would meet with the approval of three generations of palates; spending Christmas at home feeling grateful, the day after interviewing a young mother who had lived in a car with her child for a year.

But perhaps, Christmas celebrations are cyclical, marking phases of our lives.

At one stage in my life, the beginning of Christmas meant collecting pine cones to spray paint and sell. In a later, more angst-filled, period, finding the right outfit to go carolling with friends was as frustrating as continuing to sing the carols way past midnight. Then it was fuel-filled Christmas parties with good friends at the expense of family meals.

The circle began to close when, years later, after the next generation began to arrive, the Christmas season was characterised by a rediscovery of sorts. Hymns were re-learned, cookies baked with little “helpers”, and presents once again began to pile up under the tree.

Nowadays, in attempting to marry convention with modernity, family with friends and memories with meaningfulness, Christmas takes on a wholly different nature. Some may wonder, in the hoopla surrounding this season of “goodwill to all mankind”, if the real meaning of Christmas has disappeared beneath the trimmings and tinsel.

Despite the global commercialisation of a purely religious festival, it should perhaps be taken at face value. Even celebrated as a connector in our plural, culturally-challenged society.

A practising Hindu, Mohana Arumugam, put up her family’s first Christmas tree in their home eight years ago when their eldest daughter was born. She says, “It symbolised our love for her and, over the years, that ritual has become a part of our family’s tradition.”

Ever since then they have kept up the custom, with presents – and milk and cookies for Santa. For Mohana, Christmas signifies a celebration with dearly loved family and friends, and gratitude for the good things they cherish.

“These people have become our family now, an integral part of our eco-system,” she says.

For her children, who have grown up with this tradition, it is more about being with their friends, carolling and making merry with lots of laughter, presents and Santa Claus. While Mohana admits that a large part of Christmas is about the tree, presents and get-togethers, in many ways it is also about appreciating the simpler things in life. In her case, people and love. While deep pockets help maintain the material marasma that surrounds the holy day, for her what matters most of all is having a big, open heart.

I know of Muslim families who spend hours cooking a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, with turkey and all the trimmings. It is then served on their dining table to the neighbours’ families of various faiths.

I hear of Secret Santas prowling around office cubicles, leaving behind little gifts of appreciation. I listen to cheesy Christmas songs played to death in restaurants, bringing a reluctant smile to the face of even the most unyielding Scrooge.

While previously I had suspicions of Christmas being hijacked, now I’m more inclined to see past the fake snow and the giant glitter balls. Something about Christmas draws us into its warm, cosy embrace. In the end, there’s just too much goodwill around to be picky and grouchy. Somehow the message, subliminal or otherwise, gets through to all and spreads much cheer.

Christmas keeps changing for me, both personally and in a big-picture kind of way. It’s as if we make up the rituals and traditions as we go along.

Each year, we choose to hold on to what we like and toss out what doesn’t work for us any more. As Mohana sums up, “Christmas is truly for everyone. It’s a season for love, regardless of who you are.”

You have 10 days left to fill up on it.

* Delighting in dead ends, Jacqueline Pereira seeks unexpected encounters to counter the outmoded. Find her on Facebook at Jacqueline-Pereira-Writing-on.

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Counting Christmases


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