Saturday, December 25, 2010

Speaking as a Non-Christian, Only Grinches Hate Christmas

Alright, so I am not a Christian, never was, and never will be. However, I spent an awful lot of my childhood in Catholic schools, where for the record, I was neither abused nor mistreated. Instead I met some wonderfully committed teachers who followed their vocation by instilling their students with intellectual rigour, discipline and a respect for hard work.  Along the way, I learned the Bible, sang in the choir, participated in nativity plays and, as my father mischievously reminds, also tried to get drunk on the sacrament wine.

Add to this education, my family background and may be it makes sense why we celebrate Christmas.  It may be because Hinduism is culturally incapable of "fundamentalism" as we don't have a "fundamental" text  (we have a dozen to choose from, often contradictory, but never literally a "revelation" or "word of god"), or because our tradition emphasises inclusivity and respect for other religions rather than mere tolerance.  Who knows? But frankly, celebrating kindness and generosity is hard to dislike.

When I was very young, our traditionally Hindu home was visited by Santa who always left a book or game under our pillows. Of course, we suspected that my grandmother and uncles did that to ensure that we didn't stop believing the stories we heard at our Catholic school or read in books.  Funnily enough, thanks to the Soviet kids books that proliferated in India during the Cold War, my family could also de-link Santa and the presents from religious education, just as the Russian children's books did.

Of course, it helped that we had Christian friends who celebrated the festival. Sometimes, they were alone or unable to go back to family, in which case we stepped in to help them celebrate.  A meal, a shared set of carols, or grace said over the dining table has yet to hurt anyone!  And when we went back to school after our winter holidays, and wrote or spoke about our experiences, our Catholic priest-teachers praised us for practising the ultimate Christian virtues: compassion and kindness.   As my very first principal, Father Joseph, said to us in "morals" class, "the Good Samaritan is the best person in the Bible."  Over three decades later, I still believe him.

This is why the alleged "war on Christmas" makes me sad. Even though it is couched in language of liberal multicultural tolerance, it is really about exclusion and ghettoisation. Worse still, it is about a paternalistic view of the religious minorities in predominantly Christian western countries that has little to do with reality. Even worse, all these stories about the "war on Christmas" or cancelling of nativity plays, getting rid of Christmas trees, or not celebrating it at all, rarely include voices of those religious minorities.  This particular war is framed, debated, decided and fought entirely by apparently Christian western politicians and media; the dominant culture decides what the religious minorities in the West think, want, do. (Come to think of it, this isn't so different from the real wars in Iraq and Afghanistan!)

So over at the American liberal site, Huffington Post, there are a lot of personal experiences about non-Christians (mostly Jewish and atheist) feeling initially queasy about their Christian partners celebrating Christmas. These accounts are always framed as "tolerance" as the non-Christian partner eventually comes to tolerate the rituals in a deluge of self-righteousness.  Hilariously enough (at least for me), these rituals tend to be limited to a family meal, presents and a decorated tree; I have yet to read an account of a non-Christian partner "tolerating" their partner's trip to a mass.

Over at Independent, it has taken some Muslims from Luton to emphasise the spirit of Christmas; of course, this is the same story where Luton's Gujaratis are apparently fighting to preserve the Bengali language, but lets not quibble over astonishing ignorance.  And the ever faithful Telegraph has this rather odd story about how Christmas trees depress non-celebrants!

Pardon me, but I don't see why a Christmas tree would depress anyone but a grinch.   As the only non-Christian in his flat, my brother puts up an exquisite one every year in his home. The only reason I don't put one up at mine is because I am too disorganised, although I still put up the fairy lights and decorations all over my home.  When we were children, we had an artificial one that travelled to all sorts of bizarre places around the globe with us. To this day, some of my favourite memories are of coming home to the tree with its twinkling fairy lights, the gingerbread men and candy canes waiting to be devoured, and the beautiful ornaments nestled amongst the branches.  Sorry, but you have to be a miserable old git to hate a Christmas tree!

To be fair, this much maligned tree study is from Canada so I have no idea about its parameters, but the newspaper article made me wonder.  Is it really the Christmas tree that depresses people? Do the non-celebrants feel depressed because they know they shall be excluded from the social celebrations? What if it is their experience and knowledge that in many northern European and north American traditions, Christmas is so insularly celebrated that it leaves non-Christians feeling ever more like outsiders?

Having lived the bulk of my life in Christian majority countries in the Americas, Africa and Europe, I have noticed the huge difference between the way Christmas is celebrated in UK or the US (and from what I have seen, in most northern European countries) and the more "traditionally Christian" ones.  The former don't consider the neighbours, friends, or anyone beyond their immediate circle as part of the celebrations; Christmas is strictly (if a little harrowingly) only for the family.  Contrast this to places like Mexico, Namibia, or even southern Europe, where Christmas is not only a family affair but also a community one. People automatically include all others in the celebrations, which - for an outsider like me - is not only an enlightened and welcoming gesture, but also a truly Christian one: I have gone to midnight masses with friend's families, and early morning masses with the grandmothers, set up nativities and decorated Xmas trees, learned to cook obscure traditional dishes, given and gotten presents; I have gone carolling as well as sung silly songs and beat a Caga Tio.  In all cases, I have felt very much a part of the celebrations, and therefore a part of the community.

Not surprisingly, I have returned the favour: setting up decorations, cooking "traditional" Christmas meals, and organising celebrations for those who cannot be amongst family.  For me, it is about putting some of the good cheer and kindness back into the system, but also about opening my home and life to others.

Many years ago, a boyfriend (northern European) was shocked that my Muslim flatmate and I had not only put up a beautifully decorated tree in our home, but also planned on cooking big Christmas eve and Christmas day meals for friends who were unable (or unwilling) to go home.  Despite all our explanations, he just didn't "get" it.   His view was that we were not Christians so why bother; our point was that it wasn't important as the people we were cooking for were!  Since then, I have met many similar people, and they all seem to share the same traits: often highly educated, middle-class, mostly northern European origins, apparently left-leaning, secular and multi-cultural. And yet they are not only deeply uninformed but also unwilling to learn or experience anything beyond the narrow confines of their predetermined realities (sometimes, I think those are also the same people who make up the bulk of the mainstream western press).  But more sadly, they are also happy to project their own narrow view of the world to everyone else, projecting a sort of grand grinch-ness over the globe.

Somewhere in the process of commercialisation, religiosity, secularisation, multiculturalism, or whatever it is you call it in post-war Europe, the basic principle of the golden rule has been lost.  My friends - mostly non-Hindu - help me celebrate Diwali and Holi with equal affection and generosity, just as I celebrate Ramadan, Eid, Easter and Christmas with them.  And that is far more inclusive and therefore less depressing than taking away Christmas trees!

Trust me, the only reason a Christmas tree will ever depress anyone is when it stands for exclusion rather than a warm embrace.