As I sit at my desk, I look at all Christmas decorations around me. Everything glistening, glittering, sparkling, pretty, and divine. Yes, it is that time of the year again. It is December, and every cold nook and cranny of my city, office, and home has the look and feel of Christmas. There are Christmas carols filling the air everywhere I go. The air in every garden shop is fragrant with pine needles. Every store has section upon section of themed and colour coordinated Christmas trees and decorations. There are possible gift items strategically displayed in aisles of every shop that I visit, from grocery stores to electronics stores, enticing and luring the customer to buy appropriate items for family and friends. In all of this, I see almost everyone a little edgy, being aware of the credit card debt mounting, as they are on a gift buying spree for their loved ones.
Every year when Christmas is around the corner, I recall something I read during my childhood years; the beautifully written short story by O. Henry – The Gift of the Magi. Back then, the story was just a part of the English Literature curriculum at school. Back then, I did not have a true realization of what was the real meaning being conveyed in the story.
As years passed, I lived in many cities across the world, eventually calling the city of Edmonton my home. However, every part of the world that I lived in, commercialization of this divine celebration has been starkly evident, especially in the North American continent. When I observe the commercial aspect, it makes me wonder where the true meaning around the holiday of Christmas is lost. The meaning so beautifully exemplified by the story I now understand; the meaning and crux of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.
Christmas is the shortened form for Christ’s Mass. It is a holiday that is observed by billions of people all over the world, to commemorate the birth of Jesus. It is however not known whether Jesus was actually born on Christmas Day or not. It is believed that December 25 was chosen to be celebrated as Christmas day, as it is the day of winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, and nine months from March 25, the date that is believed to be the day that Jesus was conceived. Hence, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in the Western world. For Orthodox Christians however, and because they follow the Gregorian calendar, Christmas falls on January 7. Orthodox Christians have their roots primarily in Eastern European countries, Russia, and North Africa.
Regardless of the day on which Christmas is observed, the festivities around the celebration of the holiday are quite similar. A Christmas tree is put up, and then decorated with ornaments of a wide variety, and lights. Some families also have the tradition, where by the children of the family make an ornament each year, and then the ornament adorns the tree every year after that. There is something special about that tradition. Stockings for each member of the family are hung by the fireplace. This is of symbolic importance, especially for children, where it is believed that Santa Clause will come riding on his sleigh on Christmas Eve, December 24, and come down the chimney of each house, and drop presents for everyone, either under the tree, or in the stockings.
On Christmas Eve, families get together over a lavish meal, which varies from region to region, and from country to country sometimes. In the North American context, the Christmas feast normally consists of ham or roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, and a myriad of baked goodies like gingerbread cookies and pies with different kinds of filling. For beverages egg nog, hot chocolate, champagne and wine is normally served.
Among Christians of Orthodox faith, lent is observed for a few days before Christmas, where meat and fish is strictly avoided, and the meals are primarily vegetarian. An Orthodox Christmas Eve feast consists of twelve vegetarian or fish preparations, signifying the twelve apostles.
For the four and a half years that I lived in the South Goa town of Vasco da Gama where there is a substantial Christian population , I recall fruit cake, Bebinca, Neureos (also known as gujia in other parts of India), roast chicken and stews of various meats being staple around Christmas time.
In many cultures across the world, Christmas Mass is held at churches on Christmas Eve at various times, including when the midnight hour strikes, of which the Midnight Mass happens to be the most popular. People congregate in hoards; there is a prayer service, and singing of hymns such as Silent Night, Holy Night. The mass is truly a very spiritual and peaceful event and experience.
Once back home, cookies and milk are left by the Christmas tree for Santa, for when he comes down the chimney to deliver the presents.
It is on Christmas day that people, especially children, wake up excitedly to run and have a look under the tree, as to what Santa might have left for them. They wonder if they have been naughty or nice since last Christmas. They wonder if Santa has brought for them what they had either written to him, or told him while getting their Christmas pictures clicked with him. They run up to the tree, grab the presents with their names on them, and tear the gift wrap apart in an instant, the gift wrap that someone had taken some meticulous minutes to put together. Unwrapping the gifts is a very happy time, and something that families enjoy doing together. Some couples choose this time to announce to their parents and family members about them deciding to tie the knot, or the expected arrival of a grandchild, niece or nephew. A magical time filled with joy.
Each family has its own tradition around Christmas Day. Some families sit and view pictures from the years gone by. Some families go ice skating or skiing. In the Southern hemisphere, Christmas falls during summer. In Australia and New Zealand, for instance, Christmas falls during the summer break of about three months. People normally go camping, or to the beach.
My favorite thing to do on Christmas Day is to go for a nice long walk, no matter how cold it is. Everything is so magical and pretty. The snow crystals glisten like millions of jewels. It is quiet and peaceful, and very Christmassy. And when the sun sets, I like to drive around the city to look at all the houses decked up with Christmas lights.
In all of the festivities, and exchanging of gifts, and decorating of homes and businesses around the observance of Christmas, I often wonder of the giving aspect of this holiday, and what it meant in the time of Saint Nicholas and beyond, up until he became a commercialized version of himself as Santa Clause; of him helping and giving to the needy, and to masses, in their time of need. I wonder how and why we focus on what we want, and not on what we need. I wonder of the many that are homeless in this cold month of December, when in many parts of the world the temperatures plummet to freezing and below, and all they possibly need is a clean pair of dry socks. I wonder about the millions, of Christian faith or not, who are suffering across the world and for some a hug or a smile is all they want at the time.
Christmas, for me, is also a time of the year, to introspect and reflect, on how one can make a difference in someone’s life, based on what their need is. It is a time of the year when I make it a point to donate food to the local food bank for needy people.
One hopes that more and more people start giving thought into how they can do something differently, other than the commercial aspect of Christmas, and start giving to those in need. One hopes that people start giving thoughtfully, like Della and Jim from O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.