A tale of eras: Christmas in Pakistan and Bethlehem
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King!” they chant. Christmas in Pakistan has begun.
Pakistan, 21st December, 6pm:
Rodney and his friends drive into their apartment complex in a truck, in which lay 10 meter long dried bamboo shoots, the kind used to put up wedding tents. Watching from the balcony of an apartment upstairs, Rodney’s cousins run down with machetes and knives to start stripping the bamboo into long yet tough strips. Kids are playing in the compound, cycling on their little 3-wheelers or playing among the cars, innocence abounding from them.
They now have ten strips of bamboo ready to be used. Time to go have some tea and talk about what comes next. As they sit in their homes, neighbours come over with gifts to put under the Christmas tree for the children.
Someone presses the intercom from the ground floor. Rodney answers it. His friends have come from the other apartments.
“The cloth is ready, and we've bought the glue! Come down quick let’s start. My mum’s bringing some pakoras!”
Rodney and his cousins start to make their way down for what’s going to be a long night.
At the same time, in the parish around the corner, a choir is practising for Christmas Eve’s signature ‘Midnight Mass’. Strains of ‘Oh Holy Night’ and ‘Silent Night’ waft through the air, carried by the chilled evening winds into the homes surrounding the church.
The choir master goes over the carols with them meticulously one by one, knowing the congregation at mass will want to live their emotions and feelings for the birth of Christ. No other mass except for Easter will evoke such passion – and perspiration – from them.
It is a cold, wintry night. Bethlehem is preparing for another quiet sleep.
For a few nights now, shepherd and merchant alike have noticed a bright star in the sky. A pregnant woman and her spouse make their way slowly trudging along the pathways of the city towards a barn. They are accompanied by a lady who had no room in her inn. She took pity on the pregnant woman and offered them the only other option she had -- a place in the stables where a little manger lay empty.
The couple thanked her and proceeded to prepare for sleep.
Present day, 9pm:
A few of the boys from the complex have been busy nailing and tying the ends of bamboo together to form a geometric structure. The girls have also joined them, spreading swathes of glue all over the bamboo strips.
Knowing they’ll be hungry, other families have now joined them in the complex compound bringing thermoses of tea, pots of hot home-cooked meals and rotis.
One enterprising young chap brings a little stereo and begins to play Christmas carols. By 9:30pm, almost all the families are now in the compound, helping in some way or another. The patriarchs of the families help in their own way, rushing to the markets to buy any essentials for the project. Others stand and talk about the day’s goings-on and how everyone is preparing for the beginning of the Christian year.
In the church, the choir is now all set. They have practised and practised and are almost perfect. They’ve left the room and now make their way towards their homes in groups, carols still in their heads, talking about the new clothes they will be wearing and the sweets their mothers are preparing for the big night.
The woman is experiencing labour pains late into the night. Her spouse is helping her as best he can, and prepares the area around her in the stable to accommodate for a child. He places straw and hay into the manger and places his cloak there, the only place decent enough for a newborn child. The man and woman prepare for a birth.
Present day, 11pm:
Red cloth cut into two pentagons and multiple triangles are stuck meticulously onto the glued areas of the bamboo strips. The strips have been arranged in a way where two strips lay on top of each other, forming a hollow. They wait until the glue dries.
One young boy guides a bulb attached to an electric wire along one strip of bamboo. They take a break for 30 minutes to have some more tea and socialise. The air is abuzz with anticipation. People from neighbouring homes, complexes and even the local mosque have come to watch with eagerness. This is an annual ritual that the entire area awaits every year.
The glue has dried. The boys get together in a group for what comes next. Rodney guides their every action from here on, knowing that the slightest miscalculation can end their hopes for this year. They slowly tease the strips apart to increase the depth of the hollow.
Everyone gathers around, watching them. The boys now raise the structure onto its base. There in front of all to see, is a 10 metre high five-pointed star covered in bright red with strips of silver paper covering the criss-crossing lines of bamboo.
The Christmas Star is now ready. Everyone bursts into applause at the end of phase one of the project.
It is now 12am, December 22. Only two nights remain for Christmas.
Over the next few days, in a tradition that dates back to the formation of Pakistan, Christian families across the nation start to bake Christmas cakes, cookies and other delicacies. The aroma of pure ghee, sugar-thick oil used to fry goodies and the sub-continental Christmas specials called ‘nayoree’ and ‘kalkal’, fill the air. The decorations go up, the trees are lit up and each home prepares the highlight of their Christmas decoration, the Crib. The Crib is a miniature mock-up of the stable of Christ’s birth.
In the 1960s, the Catholic Church declared all Masses can be conducted in the native language of the parish instead of the traditional Latin. This made waves in Pakistan too, where from now on they could celebrate their services in a language they could understand at heart.
Masses in Urdu, English, and Punjabi grew in number and the faithful began to truly live their faith in their daily lives. The Christian community could now share their faith more openly, with their traditions and culture being visible to all. Nothing underscored these traditions more than their preparations for the Christmas season.
December 24, 10am:
Rodney calls up everyone and they join him at the Star. Three boys each run to the top of the apartment complex as well as to the neighbouring complex carrying thick nylon ropes. When they reach the top, they throw down one end of the ropes to the bottom, where they are affixed tightly to the top ends of the star.
Slowly, they start raising the star up. It takes just five minutes and the star is now 40 feet in the air. The ropes are securely fastened to hooks on the rooftops, and everyone comes down to join the cheering crowd. At this height, the bright red Christmas Star is now visible for miles, right up to the Habib Bank Plaza tower.
The faithful have gathered in the various parishes of Pakistan in their hundreds of thousands. Carols are being sung, as the older generation makes their way to the fronts of the churches.
The youngsters come in their Sunday finest. A candle-light vigil is assured. The bishops and parish priests go the backs of the churches, as the choir goes silent. The churches are plunged into darkness as everyone waits. The clergy light the Christmas candle, and from here all other candles of the faithful get lit as well.
The procession starts to make its way up the Church aisles, beginning with the Altar serving children, followed by the priests and the bishops and finally by some of the congregation who waited outside. They walk in to the choir, who after weeks of practice, have perfected their delivery, and yet the emotions behind the hymns tonight are different. They began singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. Mass has begun.
In the apartment complex, Rodney has attached the wire coming from the star to an electric socket in his home. At midnight, he flicks the switch and the large bulb in the star lights up and sends a bright red glow across the compound. The star is now visible for miles around even at night. A smile crept across Rodney’s face: His gift to Christ was this, a way for his community to have a visible representation of their festive season in a country where they are a statistic.
The Virgin Mary gives birth to the child Jesus, the Saviour of the world, in a humble stable, joined by her spouse Saint Joseph. The star in the sky burns brightly, casting its glow across Bethlehem. Angels come to visit the shepherds in the field and sing to them the same song now being sung 2000 years later across churches in Pakistan at 12am:
“Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the Newborn King!”
Christmas in Pakistan has begun.
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