In the United States, I turned off to Christmas.
Living in Chicago is not very pleasant around Christmas time – with December temperatures usually very cold, days depressingly grey and short, and snowfall causing havoc in the streets. The shopping malls are crawling mad with people, parking lots over full, and budgets cracking from the weight of spending. Plus, the year end push at the office brings added pressures around this time of the year.
Don’t you see why I got turned off?
Americans are predominantly Christian. By virtue of this fact alone, Christmas is BIG in the US. But I railed at what I saw as the misguided secularization of one of the holiest days on the calendar. I saw this holiday as being commandeered by commercialism and materialism. Add a dose of self-centeredness disguised as gift-giving – that is, focused more on what ‘I myself will get.’ If these were the underpinnings of a secular Christmas, then I no longer wanted any part of the holiday.
And I used to really love Christmas!
I don’t begrudge retailers from what they have to do – simply, to sell their merchandise. It’s what business – and society as a whole – are all about. Economies thrive in good measure on people spending their cold hard cash. For that cash provides jobs, necessities and comfort for the retailers’ employees, who then ‘cycle’ the cash back with their own spending. But the things I’d hear too much of were news reports of quarterly and year-to-date revenues for these retailers. It was almost as if the Christmas season was deconstructed to figures on the cash flow tracking record, income statement and balance sheet.
I love commercials, too – on TV and radio. I enjoy figuring out the strategies by which companies position their products and services and attract their customers. I reveled at the cleverness of some of the advertisements I’d see. Still, because many retailers make a good chunk of their yearly revenues around Christmas, it seemed that all modes of communications in our everyday lives in the US were dominated by commercials. Virtually mind-numbing! There was always that gnawing, persistent ‘call’ to parents to buy whatever the most popular toys were for their children, their nieces and nephews, plus all their neighbors’ children and their children’s children. There was always the guilt-inducing ‘call’ for lovers to buy whatever was supposed to be their partners’ hearts’ content. Don’t have the cash? No worries, just use the ‘plastic’ (credit card).
What’s more, in America, in well-meanings efforts to stamp out prejudice, discrimination and all forms of socio-cultural hatred, there was another phenomenon that eroded Christmas. We know it as ‘PC’ – political correctness. Yes, we’d all have the trappings of the holiday – the tall trees, the colorful lights, and of course the jolly, stoutly fellow in the red suit. But you dare not say “Merry Christmas” widely or indiscriminately. Nothing on cards. Nothing, it seemed, on TV or radio. It had to be “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” Why? So as not to offend others who weren’t Christians or didn’t quite celebrate Christmas. It was better to know the specific holiday or practice our friends, colleagues and neighbors followed, and to wish them accordingly – “Happy Hanukkah” to Jews and “Happy Kwanzaa” to African Americans.
These are all dear holidays, endowed with a richness of history, lore and culture. But I hated how Christmas got transformed into a generic greeting! (Interestingly, in the Middle East, my Muslim friends are quite comfortable wishing me “Merry Christmas” and, what’s more, they enjoy me wishing them “Merry Christmas.” Here, as another example, many people of different nationalities and religions openly wish each other “Eid Mubarak.”) Not so, apparently, in the US, as the PC police seemed to lurk in every corner, just waiting to pounce on any violator of the holiday protocol! Imagine the mad ‘double-bind’ feeling: Symbols of Christmas were virtually all around you, yet you couldn’t necessarily acknowledge it so easily or openly. Strange, huh.
One reader recently wrote to the Chicago Tribune, and argued that Christmas cannot be secularized. A secular Christmas, he said, was “oxymoronic.” Why? The very name of the holiday speaks to the solemn and joyful – read: religious – importance of the birth of the baby Jesus Christ. He said that to discourage or prohibit office workers from freely wishing each other “Merry Christmas” was to delegitimize this holy birth!
So this is where the very quandary of a secular Christmas lies. If we are not Christians, does it mean we cannot – or do not – appreciate the precepts of Christianity? Conversely, if we are indeed Christians, does it mean we cannot – or should not – openly but respectfully celebrate our faith on the most holy day in the year? How do we as a society navigate our faiths in such dizzying environments of diversity, plurality and sensitivity? I’ve lived in and visited many, many cities in the world, and such an environment is so dynamic, sometimes so complicated that it’s not easy at all to keep up with it, never mind grasp it.
For me, here is an open way forward and through this quandary of a secular Christmas. I tell you a story…
First, very recently, a writer from Khaleej Times asked me to comment on how Filipinos celebrated Christmas here in the UAE and in the Philippines. He has now asked me several times to comment on various events, from the Philippine Independence Day to the launch of the Dubai Metro. And he’s been very commending of me :) But my first reaction to his recent request was – quietly, to myself – “Man, I have no idea!” I hardly lived in the Philippines, and I’d been in Dubai only three years. So what did I do? I promptly called some dear Filipino friends, and got their take on how they celebrated Christmas.
One friend, in particular, suggested that I go see the Christmas tree at St. Mary’s Church here in Dubai. I was still in the office, and she knew that I was closeby. I hesitated on the phone – remember, I’m largely turned off to Christmas – but she insisted. So off I went. There were the usual congestion of traffic near the Church, the dirt and diversions of a construction site, and a moderate crush of people on foot. I parked the car a fair distance away, and patiently made my way to the Church.
When I entered the courtyard of St. Mary’s, I immediately knew that I had a visited a simple but very solemn place. Filipinos and Indians gathered together here, with that colorfully lit Christmas tree stretching 20 feet (6 meters) into the air. There were just a couple of merchants plying their Catholic and Christmas wares. Some prayed in front of the Virgin Mary, situated in a grotto, mostly standing but a couple kneeling on the hard pavement. Still more, there was a scattering of worshippers before a large outdoor TV screen, on which mass inside was broadcasted, so we could all hear the sermon and song in the solemnity of that “Simbang Gabi” (Night Mass). The words I came up with to describe my experience were these: Here, the pace was slower, the mood more reflective, and the prayers deeper. These words kept coming to me, while I was there and in the ensuing days.
You see, I believe in fate. I believe that things happen for a reason. For not only was I asked to comment by this Khaleej Times reporter and not only was I urged by my friend to visit St. Mary’s, but the Editor-in-Chief of this magazine also recently asked me to write about Christmas! So this convergence of messages told me to have another look at this holiday. But more than just a look, it told me to re-open myself to a deeper experience of the holiday. I live in an Arab Muslim country, so you can appreciate my feeling a bit stunned at this convergence of personal messages around a Christian holiday.
Here’s a way forward for a secular Christmas… Regardless of your faith, feel free to enjoy various symbols of Christmas around you, if you so wish – besides the tree, perhaps a wreath, a candy cane, or a red Santa Claus hat. Feel free to wish each other openly “Merry Christmas.” Remind those who might take umbrage at this that it is the essential spirit of Christmas that we can all celebrate – love, kindness, even redemption or salvation. Remind them that the jolly fellow – Santa Claus – isn’t just a European or American fabrication, but a universal symbol of the joy of giving. Emphasize the giving, for Christmas is NOT about spending or getting! I am very fortunate that money has rarely been an issue in my life. Whatever I needed or wanted, I usually had the cash to buy it. But the gifts I’ve gotten from many, many friends at Christmas have been absolutely free – sweet text messages on my mobile, cool greetings on Facebook, and the oh, so simple and sincere “Merry Christmas” said to each other in person. I’ve reciprocated such gifts, plus recited and given my poetry to friends. People say, “It’s the thoughtfulness that counts.” Absolutely, that in brief is what Christmas is all about.
So contrary to that reader who wrote to the Chicago Tribune that a secular Christmas was a contradiction in terms, I say, “Not necessarily.” You may not believe in the birth of Jesus, that’s fine. You may, on other hand, love the festivities and trappings of Christmas, that’s great. But above all keep the spirit of what Christmas means – again, love and kindness. Find that balance of joyfulness and laughter, on the one hand, and the meditative, solemn spirit of the holiday.
Do not fall into the trap of those who would commercialize, materialize and otherwise secularize Christmas in ways that I had described earlier. Now, that’s a holiday mouthful to add to your festive meals, eh :)
Ron Villejo, PhD
+971 50 715 9026