This will be my 40th Christmas in Canada. Our first was spent in the Leaside home of friends from Lahore. It was a modest celebration, filled with surreal wonders, like snow and lights. We went to Eaton’s and Simpson’s window displays. I don’t recall what they were that year; I’m sure it was some brightly coloured toy land masterpiece, with the jolly fat man overseeing a team of little people happily making toys for good girls and boys.
The basics of the season were established then: fellowship, faith and festivities. There might not have been any mall displays in Pakistan, but for a child it was primarily about Father Christmas. Toys, of course, and an excuse to provide some new clothes; as if that couldn’t have been done any other time of year. It’s all part of the contradiction that is this month.
For two decades my Christmas Eve was spent first at worship and then at a cousin’s; half a dozen growing families gathered in a suburban mansion. I played Santa to a generation of second cousins and now I wistfully watch them don the red suit. We created our own tradition; mixing this with that to make something. Our table had curries and rices, as one might expect, along with pastas, turkey and ham. A claim to all the bounties available to us.
The wonder I felt at my first Canadian Christmas I have seen on the faces of children for four decades. Children who have just arrived, once only a week earlier, from away, excited and trepidatious about everything. Two – and three – year – olds born here, absorbing their legacy of family and of faith. And of our steadily growing wealth.
There was always worship and reflection at our Christmas gathering. My uncle was a minister, and he led us with his infectious hopefulness. We remembered the baby in the manger as the reason we had gathered. These were happy evenings that lasted till the wee hours after Santa had come and gone. Lots of laughter and singing and storytelling and eating, filled with the intensity of family.
There were dark moments, as there always are at family gatherings. Accusations, betrayals, back – biting. That, too, is part of the Christmas legacy; that strand of pain that runs through family, that is smoothed over by … well, by simply ignoring it usually. Perhaps this is why divorces and breakups spike in December; the hypocrisies of families are most exposed by the pressures of this season.
Christmas hasn’t changed radically over the years. It is still this confused and complicated mixture of family, faith and commerce; equal parts Oh Come All Ye Faithful and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. You cannot untie one from the other. For most of us, Christmas would not be complete without a visit from Charlie Brown or George Bailey or Dylan Thomas.
How rich it is to be human! A messy wonder, really. There is nothing to do but enjoy the spoils of this season, the parties, the punches, the presents. I don’t know if the madness that is this month actually grew out of celebrating Christ’s birth or is somehow coincidental to it, and has globbed on to it as an excuse to whitewash the excessiveness. I must call a cultural historian and ask one day. I do know, you can’t run away from the Christmas – crazy; believe me, I’ve tried.
It’s not about running or about disingenuously wailing against consumerist excesses while contributing to them. No, it’s about finding that quiet little space in your life where you can go to the manger for a moment and sit in meditation. It is the only defence we have against the noise—and don’t fool yourself, the rest is nothing but noise. So, it is a good thing we have the manger.