I can’t remember a memorable Christmas. The memories appear similar. The food, the lights, the carol, the harmattan sweeping through the streets. So what else is there to hold on to, especially if one doesn’t believe in virgin births and a magical man garbed in red bearing gifts? It feels hollow, like an empty well that has no bottom. It was Shakespeare who said variety is the spice of life; if nothing changes, perhaps one can be forgiven for giving into despair.
But it is not true that Christmas has no dynamism. The celebration has changed over the centuries, subject to the same evolution that gave birth to we Sapiens. At first, Christians debated whether it was even appropriate to celebrate the saviour’s birth. Wasn’t his death what we should be full of joy with? Why celebrate his birth when there is still death ahead?1 But humans love beginnings. We like to know how things started, as much as we love how they end. Our reality is framed by these two anchors. A beginning and a conclusion. It doesn’t occur to us that the true physics of our reality might not correspond to this box, that there could be no beginning and no end; but we are slaves of time, no not time per se, but clock-time, measuring what we see, rulers and protractors in hand, ignoring what we cannot.
That Jesus – the most important man in all of history? – was born on a given day was an idea the early Christians could not resist. So they set a day and became like the pagans before them. And thus Christmas was born into the world. A day like any other but also signifying the beginning of something we, with all our knowledge and books, have yet to understand.2 And, of course, it became a human thing. At first glance, it serves to bring the Saviour3 closer. But that’s an illusion. Christmas serves no extra-terrestrial communication purpose, except to reveal what is in us, our deepest desires.
This year, on my street, there are few fireworks, even if it is just a few days to Christmas. Ordinarily one would expect a barrage of sounds tearing into the atmosphere, shrieking, disturbing the peace. But there has been relative calm. Someone could point to Buharinomics, typified by the border closure and selective stifling austerity, a kind of pseudo-socialism but without a clear direction.4 Or, maybe there are fewer fireworks because more people are now glued to their phones, thinking up the next Facebook post, tweet or Tik-Tok move. More screentime means less time to hit the streets and set it on fire. Whichever answer (and I am sure there are more) one chooses to stick with, it is evidence for the dynamism of Christmas – that no two versions are alike and that the day is what we make of it, not what it is.
Of course, my Christmases look alike because my holidays have always looked alike. Holidays – those brief moments that jar us from the brutish monotony of capitalism – are when I have the time to pursue those half-formed ideas in my notes, to pore over those unfinished books, to find some extra sleep and to eat a little, okay maybe not a little. It barely changes, year after year, this indoor routine. So one doesn’t get to see what the world makes of it, except on TV and now social media. I can’t deny that it leaves me curious, because I have a theory that if by chance and some crooked level of ingenuity one could gather all Christmas experiences in one place and aggregate, it is possible to figure out what Christmas really is.
So maybe you can start by telling me what you do on Christmas. Where do you go to and why? What kind of gifts do you like to receive? Should I send you a postcard and would you write me a letter by hand?
Perhaps, that Christmas isn’t marked in heaven5, shouldn’t be a tragedy. After all, what is Christmas if not human joy and gratitude for life and companionship. Angels have no need for these. So we do it for us. Shouldn’t that be enough? Of course, it should, but it isn’t, because Christmas’s promise is too gargantuan to be left to the frailness of human interpretation.
The birth of Christ and how we remember it teaches us one important truth about life – that the unseen is more important than the seen. But everything can be seen if we have the right lenses. The Magi saw the star. Newton saw gravity. Jobs saw the iPhone. The unseen is all around us, but do we see? Jesus said, for they have eyes but cannot see. Embedded in our carols, our gifts, our rice and chicken, embedded in our dance routines, the full laughter at dinner, the long hug at the airport, the reunions, embedded in them is the remembrance that a guy who had it all chose to leave it all for folks who couldn’t care less whether he shit himself or not. It’s not even about the story’s veracity, it’s the incredulity – why would anyone do that? Because the most important things are those we do not see, yet.
And this is how we can beat depressive days – the assurance that something is coming. Something new, something glorious. Something that is not beginning and end. Something that is not clock-time. Today, we talk about the end of the world, climate change and the collapse of our system. But we can hope and fight like Greta because a new world is indeed possible. Like King, when nothing about race in America made sense, we can raise our voices and declare that we have a dream. Sure, life can take away my body, pummel it and crush it to dust, but it will not take possession of my soul. Because I believe. ✚
- According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, during the first two centuries of Christianity, there was strong opposition to recognizing birthdays of martyrs or, for that matter, of Jesus. Numerous Church Fathers offered sarcastic comments about the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays when, in fact, saints and martyrs should be honoured on the days of their martyrdom—their true “birthdays,” from the church’s perspective.
- Christmas, in its varying forms, has survived for centuries. If a thing has such lasting power, there is no doubt in my mind that an underlying truth sustains it. But what is this truth?
- The Saviour, here, is a metaphor for the initiator of the universe, a role Jesus (as part of the Trinity) plays in the imagination of billions.
- Since he became Nigeria’s President in 2015, Muhammadu Buhari has implemented economic programs that seek to cut costs, limit the role of market forces and emphasise the welfare of the poor. However food prices have skyrocketed, insecurity has worsened and there is a general feeling that Buhari hasn’t applied the austerity measures to himself and those within his circle.
- Christmas is not celebrated in heaven because December 25 has no cosmic marker. What I mean is that there are no comets flying across the atmosphere every Christmas. Or maybe a star that looks brighter? Or a particular rainbow with dazzling colours? Which really leaves me confused. How on earth is it possible that the birth of history’s most important man (?) has no cosmic marker?