Celebrating Christmas in the changed times

Emanuel Sarfraz
Christians today across the globe celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, which took place in the little town of Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Chrisitans like elsewhere celebrate Christmas in Pakistan with enthusiasm and religious fervour. The country is facing a serious threat of terrorism and rise of extremism with Christian becoming one of the targets on two occasions this year. The first one was in Lahore when a mob attacked a Christian neighbourhood in March. Fortunately there were no casualities. The second was a suicide bomber attack at in Peshawar this September in which nearly 100 people were killed. The two events have left the Christians in a sombre mood. The Christmas festival this year, therefore, is being celebrated with simplicity mainly due to high inflation and threat of terrorism.
Christmas is a time for homecoming. It would be sad for many families members of many have migrated abroad or are seeking asylum in different countries of the world fearing persecution at the hand of extremists. The scribe learnt of the many Christian families (with large number of other Pakistanis) that are stranded in detention centres in far away places like Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea and other countries while others seek asylum countries of Europe, Pacific Rim and Americas. It is high time for the leadership of Pakistan to take note of the situation and build confidence in minorities and marginalised people.
Christmas season starts from the first week of December. This year due to the high inflation many Christmas functions were postponed as the cost of holding such functions has gone high. But that does not mean that there was let up in Christmas functions or events. A number of carol singing and other events were held across Pakistan. The government of Punjab announced to hold special Christmas bazars to ensure that Christians may be able to buy grocery and other items of daily us at reduced prices. Similarly a number of NGOs and organisations had organised special Christmas bazars. The Alliance de Francaise (French Centre) and Annemarrie Schimmel Haus (German Centre) in Lahore organised a Christmas Bazar. The number of Christmas parties and dinners this year, however, was low. The Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a special gesture also hosted a lavish lunch for Christians, Sikhs and Hindus at the Governor’s House where about 600 people were feted.
A white Christmas with snow covering the whole landscape is considered an ideal one in the West. Here in Pakistan chilly weather with an all-prevailing fog is considered the best weather for Christmas at least upcountry. It has already snowed in Murree and northern parts of country. For the Christians living there it is already white Christmas. In the plains the fog has disappeared after the rain and thus giving way to clear skies. Thus there will be little transportation problems and Christian community would be able to easily go to churches and later visit their dear ones.
The run up to December 25 is always exciting and full of fun. The month of festivities this year will end with a solemn New Year – the religious festival of Christians. It marks the naming and circumcision of Jesus Christ.
Christmas is a time of sharing the love and happiness of being that lies in all of us. Over the years Christmas celebrations have changed a lot. The spirit of Christmas however lives on. The smell of freshly baked rich plum cakes, music of the centuries old Christmas carols and the sound of the jingling bells of Santa Claus are still there but many things have changed. The climax of the events culminating in the exchange of Merry Christmas greetings on the midnight of December 24 is still there. Serving of steaming hot tea or coffee after the midnight service in many churches is a tradition that still continues.
The trend of preparing hand made Christmas cards has faded away. The greeting cards too have gone out of fashion. The para church organisations publish their greeting cards. A survey of the different bookshops in Lahore showed that though the greeting cards are available but the sales till December 24 had been low. The fad of greeting loved ones and friends through SMS messages has picked up in the last five years. Another practice of sending email greeting cards has drastically gone down mainly due to availability of other free mediums like Viber, Skype and WhatsApp.
Street decoration in densely Christian populated areas is done a few days prior to Christmas. Bright shining stars (now electrically lit ones used) were seen placed at the rooftops of homes in Lahore’s Youhanabad, Naseerabad, Bahar Colony and Green Town areas. In Karachi a large numbe of youth donning Santa Claus gear and clothing staged a rally across the city beginning from Azam Basti while a similar procession was staged in Warispura Faisalabad. In Lahore a group of youngsters wearing Santa Claus clothes took a round of the city especially media houses wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and distributing sweets and chocolates among the general public. Activist Joseph Francis led this group of youngsters.
Christmas is the time of homecoming and many take up the opportunity of holiday to relax and sleep. Most of the Christians in Pakistan live in rural areas and for them Christmas is without Anglo traditions like cakes, Christmas tree and the coming in of Santa Claus at functions. They enjoy traditional foods and special rice balls (pini) with raisins in them. Christmas Day attraction used to be Mela (fun fair) held in the premises of churches. The scribe inquired from some people living in different villages. Singing of Punjabi Christmas songs and story telling goes about while fresh Jalebi (sweet) cooked on the spot is served near the places of worship.
The sizeable Christian population that lives in cities follows the many traditions that were introduced here by the British. Trend of preparing special Christmas cakes is an Anglo tradition but it has declined in recent years. There are few bakeries left that used to make special rich plum Christmas cakes. Mohkam Din Bakers in Anarkali is one of the few that are still in business. The number of families making cakes at home has gone down. People mostly buy cakes from bakeries perhaps because they do not want to go through the long tiring process. In past whole family would prepare the ingredients for the traditional rich plum cakes having a lot of nuts and raisins, which were baked a few weeks before Christmas. The recipes of these cakes varied from family to family, having been passed on from generation to generation. Apart from cakes some other baking delights are also prepared at homes.
The tradition of preparing decorative things for Christmas has gone down. Hand made decorations depicting the angels, star; Christmas Father and Christmas Tree are now giving way to shining decorations available in market.
The tradition of placing Christmas trees in homes continued. The cheap Chinese decorations have flooded the market. A four to five feet tall Christmas tree of green colour are easily available for Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,000. Christmas trees are adorned with small decorative electric lights, small bells and miniature models depicting the angels, Christmas Father and other symbolic figures related to the season. The use of wax candles has ended. Cypress trees having a height of 4 to 7 feet were once used to make Christmas trees. These have mostly been replaced with artificial pine trees. A must part of the decoration in churches is the preparation of crib – model of the manger scene at Bethlehem. Women and youth fellowship groups prepare this decoration weeks before Christmas. Most churches are decorated with fresh flowers. Choirs or group of young boys and girls go from house to house singing carols on the eve of Christmas. The choir participants were given fruit, food and sometimes money at the homes they visit.
The Anglo Indian culture has vanished from the cities as most of Anglo Indian families migrated abroad in the last two decades. They used to hold dance parties but that scene has now disappeared. The few Anglo-Indians that remain do hold some get-togethers. There have been a lot of inter-marriages with Punjabi Christians and many of them now are not inclined to celebrate Christmas the way they used to do.
After Christmas service in the morning fun fairs used to be held in many churches where the families would together enjoy the food. On inquiry from different churches that used to hold such fun fairs the scribe learnt that few of them would hold such event due to security reasons.
The fun and fellowship of Christmas remains incomplete if we do not share the joys with the less privileged ones. The true spirit of Christmas lies in the fact that you forgive those who have done you harm and help those who are less fortunate than you. While celebrating Christmas we should not forget our brothers and sisters living in the conflict zone. We are living in difficult times. Let all of us pray for peace and prosperity of Pakistan. The times have changed but the spirit of Christmas must live on. n

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