Count­ing Christ­mases

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

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INBOX - by JAC­QUE­LINE PEREIRA De­light­ing in dead ends, Jac­que­line Pereira seeks un­ex­pected en­coun­ters to counter the out­moded. Find her on Face­book at Jac­que­linePereira-Writ­ing-on.

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, mer­ry­mak­ing 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 fu­elfilled 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.

One for all: de­spite the global com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of a purely re­li­gious fes­ti­val, per­haps christ­mas can be cel­e­brated as a cul­tural con­nec­tor in our plu­ral so­ci­ety.

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