As we settle down in relative calm in the country after the whirlwind of politics that rocked us until the general elections of 10 December, we have some more days of respite afforded by the festive season before things begin to heat up again. Which they will surely do as soon as we get into 2015.
For the coming few heady days we will live in the clouds of first, Christmas, then New Year. These two events always bring hope, until the clouds dissipate. That hope of brotherly love all around and world peace remains, alas, ever a forlorn dream despite all the high-sounding messages that resonate when the bells toll. On a more mundane level, we have already had a sample of that phenomenon with the immediate calling off of the Alliance of Modernity and Unity after the poll results came in, showing that it was anything but united, let alone brotherly.
At the global level, there was a supreme irony that played out horribly a few days ago, with the massacre of 142 schoolchildren in a savage attack which the Taliban claimed as a revenge one, in an army school in Peshawar, Pakistan. This took place against the backdrop of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded some days previously to another victim of the Taliban who survived, schoolgirl Yousufzai Malala. She becomes the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize, and she shared it with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi who has been tirelessly working for children’s rights and welfare.
To come back to the Christmas season, it is a fact that many Christians – those who remain after the others that have been killed or fled whenever possible, that is – in the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq, will celebrate their sacred day in an atmosphere of hostility. The persecution of Christians in the so-called holy land has become an issue in the Christian community, but is this the wheel of time turning one may ask, when missionaries went after indigenous people from the time of the Spanish conquistador Cortes to proselytize in South America? ‘So-called’ because of the irony of the ongoing conflictual tension that prevails there despite innumerable attempts at bringing about peace.
Be that as it may, with all the information that is available online nowadays through articles, posts, blogs, twitters, comments in the various media, print as well as social media, for many years now criticisms of Christian doctrine and practices, of the Vatican and even of the popes has been coming from within the Christian community itself. This is in line with the western tradition of putting into question all sacred cows with the rise of science.
It is not surprising that this has led to its logical end with atheism spreading significantly in leading countries of the West such as France, England and America. In fact, the movement has even been graced with a name: ‘Atheology’, if we are to go by a book written by one of its votaries, the French philosopher Michel Onfray, that goes by the same name. It is also a fact that attendance at Sunday masses has long been dwindling in several countries in Europe, with the result that many churches in the UK, for example, have been converted into pubs or used for other purposes.
Late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken on the religious establishment with powerful arguments that have it reeling. Of course it fights back and will not admit defeat, but what is happening generally cannot belie the trend among many people who prefer to seek solace more in spirituality than in organised religion.
In fact, though, Christmas only later became a religious festival, with the invention of Santa Claus in the Nordic climes. Where else could Santa be ‘riding through the snow in a white-horse open sleigh’ at this time of the year? Some have decried that what began as a pagan festival has been transformed into a celebration associated with Christ, which the magazine The Truth published by a Christian sect gave an interesting account of in one of its issues some time back. For that matter, it will be recalled that around the time of the ‘advent’ of the second millennium, a lot of heat was generated around the actual birth date of Jesus Christ.
In an article in the ‘Times of India’ titled ‘We Need To Rewrite The Christmas Story’, the author Janina Gomes has this to say: ‘Originally, Christmas was a quiet family feast, when people came home from far and near, just to be with the family and to eat together, sharing not just food but also so many memories and experiences… Today, many people are lonely at Christmas because they have no one to celebrate the feast with. For some, it has become simply a ritual of going to church in one’s best clothes and finery, and a few handshakes at the end of the service.’
This is only too true of many festivals that have become excessively commercialised, a kind of social tsunami that is beyond anyone’s individual capacity to roll back. Whether this is even desired is questionable.
What with the recent terrorist incident in Australia and the fuelling of more terrorism emanating from specific sources in the Middle East, we may consider ourselves lucky in this island to be far away from these zones of active conflict, although it is said that terror is now a global phenomenon. Given our vulnerability, we have to be very careful about who we choose to engage with politically and diplomatically. Only economic interests cannot be the determining factor.
Despite all these controversies and issues though, let us all enjoy these few days since like several other of our festivals, Christmas is a national celebration. And so Merry Christmas to all.
* Published in print edition on 24 December 2014