A CHRISTMAS STORY
(By Lily Arasaratnam-Smith)
‘Tis a story about Christmas
You might find it intriguing
Read it twice, if you must
Let’s now start at the beginning…
Once upon a time, there was a small town in northern Sri Lanka. And in that town, there lived people of different faiths; Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, though most were Hindus. There was a church where Christians worshipped, there was a mosque where Muslims worshipped, and there were several temples where Hindus worshipped.
All year around, the people of the village celebrated various festivals. The Muslims celebrated the festival of Eid at the end of the fasting period. They prayed at the mosque, cooked delicious meals of biriyani and sweets, and shared it with their neighbours. Later in the year, the Hindus decked the streets with lights, prayed in their temples, prepared an array of delectable sweets, and celebrated the festival of Deepavali. They too often shared their sweets with their Christian and Muslim neighbours, as a gesture of friendship. In December, the Christians decorated pine trees in their houses, strung coloured lights, made cakes and sweets. They went to church on Christmas morning, exchanged presents with family members, and shared their cakes and sweets with their Hindu and Muslim neighbours. For each festival of faith, those who practised that faith took on the role of hosts, and those of other faiths were amicable spectators.
And so it was, that on the day of Eid, the Hindus and Christians looked forward to delicious treats from their Muslim friends and wishing them “Eid Mubarak”; on Deepavali, it was the Muslims and Christians who anticipated their Hindu neighbours’ tasty sweets; and on Christmas, the Hindus and Muslims enjoyed the treats from their Christian friends and wished them “Happy Christmas.” There were even friendly rivalries to see who could out-give the other.
In this small town there lived a family of four: father, mother, a little boy and a little girl. The youngest, the little girl, loved Christmas. She enjoyed the smell of the fresh pine tree in the house, she eagerly anticipated the many treats that her Mum was going to cook, she looked forward to a present on Christmas morning, and she especially enjoyed the part where her parents would wrap up Christmas sweets and treats and deliver them to their neighbours of other faiths. She knew that there were only a small group of Christians in her town, and thus Christmas was not as big a deal as Deepavali. But she wondered how magnificent it must be to live in a place where Christians were the biggest group (as Hindus were in her small town); where Christmas would be widely celebrated as a grand affair. She had heard of a place called the “West” where there were indeed many, many, Christians and she had seen glimpses of their grand Christmas celebrations on TV. She looked forward to experiencing such a wonder.
Many years later, the little girl (who was no longer so little) finally had the chance to travel to the West. She soon learnt that the West too had people of many faiths (and no faith), but there were indeed many more Christians in the West than in her town in Sri Lanka. And so she eagerly awaited her first Christmas in the West. Surely, she thought, the Christians would celebrate grandly and those of other faiths (or no faith) would enjoy the hospitality of the Christians.
Christmas came early in the West. Decorations went up in November; shops started playing “Christmas” music, and people began a frenzy of shopping for presents.
The girl wondered how big these people’s families were, because they seemed to be buying, and buying. After all, the girl thought, doesn’t each person get just one present? She also noticed that everyone seemed to be shopping, not just Christians. But this was only the beginning of the many strange things she began to observe.
She heard “Christmas” songs that were about Santa, reindeers, and elves. She did not recall learning about any of them in Sunday school. She thought she knew the story of the birth of Christ quite well (she had played the part of an angel in her Sunday school nativity plays, after all), but there seemed to be another story for Christmas in the West. From cards, to songs, to “holiday” films, there was little mention of Christ. People spoke of Christmas as the time for miracles, the time for family, and time for giving, but hardly anyone seemed to know why.
Christmas was indeed grand in the West. The girl saw lights and decorations that outshone the grandest of Deepavali festivals she’d ever seen. But, unlike in her small town in Sri Lanka, she no longer knew whose festival was being celebrated.
She was afraid to wish someone “Happy Christmas” in case they took offense – though they too seemed to be shopping and decorating. She did not understand why it was offensive to identify Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ. Surely, just as her Hindu and Muslim friends were entitled to their celebrations of faith, was she not entitled to hers? If people did not believe in the birth of Christ, then what were they celebrating at Christmas, she pondered.
She observed that “Happy Holidays” was the preferred greeting at Christmas. She wondered whether she should greet the people of other faiths with “Happy Holidays” on their festivals as well. Perhaps that was the rule in the West.
She overheard some people complaining about being in debt because of Christmas. Others complained about the “stress” of the “holiday” season. She puzzled over why they shopped so much if they were in debt; and why they had such excessive expectations of presents, food, and decorations, if they found it stressful. Wasn’t the birth of Christ a joyful celebration? Wasn’t the point of giving one another a present a gesture of love on Christ’s birthday?
She was appalled to see “Christmas” games (she heard one was called “Bad Santa”) where people took presents from one another, in a frenzy to get the present they most coveted. Even some of her Christian friends played this game. They said it was just a bit of fun. But she could not understand what it had to do with Christmas. Wasn’t Christmas about remembering God’s ultimate gift for humanity? When had this celebration become about Santa and a horde of presents? Why was Santa in the limelight on Jesus’ birthday celebrations? She wondered whether the West promoted this alternative narrative of Santa so that many people could celebrate Christmas without believing in Christ. She wondered whether the West had secular narratives for celebrations of festivals in other faiths as well. Was there a secularised Eid or Hanukkah? She wondered.
On Christmas, the girl discovered that only a small group of people went to church. But that did not stop others from celebrating. Everyone seemed to be having parties, opening presents, and eating plates and plates of food.
Christmas in the West was the most extravagant celebration that she had experienced. Yet it left her feeling thoroughly disappointed.
The girl wondered how she, as a Christian, could celebrate the birth of Christ in this new context. What was a meaningful celebration in the midst of, in her perception, self-indulgent consumerism? She liked giving and receiving presents, of course. She enjoyed putting up Christmas decorations, no doubt. She certainly looked forward to delicious Christmas treats. But these were the outward manifestations of the inner joy of remembering the birth of Christ. They were neither the reason for nor the definition of Christmas – they were simply the trimmings of it.
So she remembered the birth of Christ, the hope for humanity, the reminder of God’s unconditional love. She realised that Christmas is about celebrating these truths, no matter in what culture she found herself.
The girl recommenced celebrating Christmas as she did when she was a little girl. She went to church, she gave and received presents, she delighted in the beautiful decorations, she indulged in tasty treats, she gave gifts to needy children – because these grand trimmings were there for the celebration of a grand truth.
There came a day when her parents too arrived in the West. The family resumed their tradition of sharing homemade Christmas treats with their neighbours. The Mum prepared scrumptious Sri Lankan sweets, the girl (now all grown up) and her Dad wrapped these in beautiful Christmas plates. And the Dad walked up to the many neighbours (most of whom he had never met before) in their suburban Sydney street, to wish them Happy Christmas and share a plate of treats.
This act was met with surprise and delight. The neighbours had not expected such a Christmas greeting. Some of them enthusiastically reciprocated. The family received barbequed meat from their White Australian neighbours, Lebanese sweets from their Lebanese neighbours, and later, on Deepavali, they received Indian sweets from their Hindu neighbours.
Neighbours came and went, but on Christmas Eve they were surprised by a knock on the door, with a Sri Lankan neighbour bearing homemade sweets and a Christmas greeting. While Christmas seemed complicated in the West, the family simply owned their celebration of the birth of Christ, sharing treats with neighbours just as they did in Sri Lanka. And so it is to this very day.
Thus ends this story of Christmas
But the lesson learnt continues
Shop for presents, if you must
And string up lights in lovely hues
But Christmas shouldn’t be stressful
It’s a time for celebration
Dwelling in Christ is restful
His birth a cause for elation
The coming of the Prince of Peace
Not a time for offence
Let all enmity cease
There’s joy to dispense
So remember Christ as the focus
At home or at the mall
Let His peace dwell among us
A Happy Christmas to all