Here comes December again, clothed in fancy garbs of yuletide preparations, with the harmattan and the familiar, dewy smell its wind carries, and Christmas. Harmattan has promised to return over the years; the earth still insists on revolving and entering the solstice that produces grand stories.
Christmas story. Many have drifted from their Christian upbringing but still confess the profound impression of the religion in their lives. I am one of them. One of these impressions is the story of Christmas, of baby Jesus, the Saviour of the World. Of Herod’s fear of an infant growing to fulfil a prophecy of ending his kingdom, of Three Wise Men following a star (and the accompanying hymn ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’), of pictures in My Book of Bible Stories showing shepherds in turbans, keeping watch over their flock under a starlit night sky, and the manger Jesus is born.
It’s hard to say how enriching our Christmas experience was comparing others’. This, however, is sure: it is hard getting the story of Christmas out of one’s head after childhood. Not because the celebration is recycled every year. But for its profundity.
Growing up as a good Catholic child, this story was most fascinating, after that of Joseph, because it is about children. And the story’s structure, of the underdog to surpass forces against him, produced the desired result: to strengthen one’s belief in the might of God for his own.
It is sad how enlightenment ruins this innocence. ‘Stop reading too many books’, is usually the caution. The fear: you shall corrupt your religious beliefs, as it surely did for me. Some of us didn’t wait for adulthood to cause an atrophying spirit for Christmas; accumulation of knowledge, translated to subtle doses of unbelief, did. Unbelief and doubts about God or his son. Knowledge of the distorted history of the Church and the fusion of Roman pagan holidays and rituals with Christianity by Constantine. Or at the end of the day, distrust in the story of Christmas because of the feeling of non-proprietorship to its superstructure that is European, and as an accessory of imported religion.
But no one can take away the great significance of this holiday celebration and its surprising timing towards each year’s end. Carols, for example, can transport the mind to places only imagined. Or is it the smell of fried meat in the house? The gifts, new toys and clothes; the joy effused during this time? The visits to parks and beaches, or constipation after taking two bottles of Mirinda?
Before I talk about my estrangement with all these today, a certain thing befuddles me. This is expressed in the first paragraph of Adam Gopnik’s essay ‘In With The New,’ that what is heady today, like the celebration of Christmas, becomes a mere disturbance once it is over, as he judges the business of Christmas trees as wholly entrepreneurial:
. . . after the first week of January, those same trees, anxiously selected and triumphantly lofted home, are heaped brutally on the sidewalk, bits of tinsel still clinging to their needles, for the Department of Sanitation to haul away.
Yet the human psyche pursues euphoria. (Our religious leaders in the country know better: the human psyche is ‘wired’ to euphoria.) This is how Christmas has been reinvented over the years by capitalism – to promote unhinged joy. Till the day of its celebration, the marathon begins. The ambitions and plans. The dreams that will come true. The lady to go out with, if she accepts. The car that must be bought. The last-minute hairdos. The new house that must be moved in to. The new things that must be acquired. The impressions we have to make. All for a day’s celebration; and not even one of the days – of being born or death – the good book says is important in one’s life.
The ancient Greeks had two festivals dedicated to the god of wine and fertility Dionysius: the Rural Dionysia and the City Dionysia. The rural Dionysia, a prelude to city Dionysia, was a procession, a pompe, where members of the phallophoroi carried a huge phallus representative of the god Dionysius. This festival which was similar to the Roman Saturnalia happened during winter solstice, the same time we celebrate Christmas today. What ensued at the festivals was inhibited frenzy, jollity and sybaritic manifestations. This spirit is inherited in Christmas today, a celebration traced to these festivals, minus the birth of Jesus Christ.
That is why some denominations like the Jehovah Witness, Church of Christ, Deeper Life, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopt a ‘scriptural’, ‘Bible-believing’ way to celebrate the birth of the Saviour in a way that it is not robbed of its sanctimony. The good eggs of Christianity, so they believe themselves, always bear the burden of being right in a world that evolves waywardly. They point us in the right direction this time: that jollity is in vain if we are not prepared for what comes next, the death of the same Saviour. Although in Jesus’ time people waited for thirty-three years; today it only takes four months.
To insert Adam Gopnik’s concern here – how does this celebration of joy becomes that of sorrow? This, after all, is the mystery in which religion, and the world ultimately, works. So when it is time to rejoice and be glad, when Christmas is here, we do, as we’ll always prefer joy to sadness. Even if it results in a proliferation of desire. Christmas!!
It is also a strange time. Road accidents are many for those travelling after a long time away from their villages. People die from über-indulgence: excessive drinking and drug overdose. Drownings at the beach, food poisoning, sexphyxiation?
I remember some Christmases I sat at home and watched on TV children of the middle class dancing at parks and in company with Barney, Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Boy Ajasco, and feeling left out. There’s that kid out there, too, about to witness the same thing. But I can give him my two-naira thoughts in retrospect: he shouldn’t sweat it.
For the last eight years, I have become suspect at anything too European. Christmas, for example. The carols, the deer, the snow, Santa Claws! Something in my gut protests against these images. The Passion of Christ, a classic tragedy, resonates better with me.
Yet I can never do away with the demons of Christmas that must haunt me everywhere I look and go this season. A sweltering bottle of beer. Fried meat? Salad? Carols that rekindle childhood memories. A carol still haunts me today. Never known the lyrics, I only hum it. I have searched the Christmas songs section of the Catholic hymn book, humming its tune to the words of the less familiar songs therein. Once I was able to match it with ‘Long the ages roll and descend . . .’ in a Christmas carol book. Not sure if the words are exact, but long, Christmas has always been here, ages rolling and descending, as there will be, without end. ✚
Terver writes from Makurdi and was a former editor at Praxis magazine. He is the Founding Editor of Afapinen.