While Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, there is much more to this religious festival than what first meets the eye. For most Christians, the festivities commence with a four week preparation time called Advent which is spent in anticipation for 25th of December. The word ‘advent’ is derived from the Latin word ‘adventus’ which means coming and therefore, Advent is essentially a waiting period for the coming of Christ’s kingdom and the impending, Christian new year.
Sunday Mass at a local church in Karachi.
During this period, churches around town echo with the sound of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,’ the hymn which summarises the emotion behind Advent. Wreaths of flowers are set up everywhere along with four candles — three purple and one pink, and each Sunday, a new candle is lit during Mass. Out of the four Sundays of the Advent period, each sees a Mass of a different theme in sequential order, starting from Hope and Faith for the first two Sundays and ending at Joy and Love for the later two. But Advent services aren’t limited to churches only; many families bring the early celebrations home in the form of small prayer meetings, held in collaboration with their family, friends and neighbours. Prayers are said, stories are shared hymns are sung and the youngsters are taught about Christmas spirit by the adults.
Advent wreath and candles.
There is no better way to bring in the Christmas spirit than through songs! Christmas carols come in two categories: the religious ones and the more general ones, such as ‘Jingle Bells.’ Carols are actually a rather exciting aspect of the Advent period as many churches organise carol evenings and invite choirs from various parishes to showcase their talent. Each choir is dressed to the nines and their serene, melodious Christmas praises overwhelm and enchant all those who come to listen. This year, nearly 300 children will be singing together at the Carnival of Carols organised by St Lawrence’s Church in Karachi. The evening will begin with popular carols, followed by a meet and greet for the guests and finally, a gift from Santa for each of the singers. In the spirit of solidarity, St Lawrence’s Church has dedicated this year’s carnival to all those who lost their lives in the dreadful attack in Peshawar last week.
Spending Christmas at an old age home.
If you happen to pass by a Christian neighbourhood during the festive season, you will see many groups of children prancing from door to door, singing their favourite carols and spreading the joy the season is known for. At times, Muslim and other non-Christians living in the community also join in, adding to the merriment. It is a must for these children to visit local old age homes to include the sick and the elderly in their celebrations. Some families also send gifts for those being called upon lest they feel left out.
Trees on sale for Christmas at Bohri Bazaar.
A very important part of celebrating Christmas involves the Christmas tree and putting up decorations in and around one’s house. In fact, bonfires, tree parties and Christmas markets are organised in most communities, attracting the young and old for dance, games, gifts and karaoke sessions. If you haven’t already, take a quick trip across a Christian neighbourhood during the season; you will simply fall in love with the beautiful wreaths, stars, bells, holly and fairy lights decorating the houses. There are also Christmas trees adorned with tinsel and sundry, shiny ornaments to be found within the homes. Vendors at the Bohri Bazaar in Karachi do a great job capitalising on Christmas, offering thematic decorations and trees of all shapes and sizes. Just looking at the amazing stuff on sale at the Christmas markets is enough to renew one’s hope and faith in humanity which is the main aim of the entire festival.
Meeting Santa on Christmas.
It is this hope which nestles in all Christian homes in the form of a Crib — a miniature statue depicting the birth of Christ. It includes miniatures of Mother Mary, her husband Joseph and a baby Christ in a haystack (called a Manger), with angels, shepherds, their flock and the three kings who visited them. Larger cribs are set up in churches as a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas and the reason for the season: Christ. The miracle birth is also enacted across Catholic schools and churches in the form of Nativity plays. The plays bring to light, religious aspect of the festival and helps the younger generations understand their roots better.
Of course, what is a celebration without an assortment of delicious treats to choose from? These treats will vary from home to home but by and large, remain the same throughout. Sweet and savoury delicacies like Voraas, Culculs, Neorees, Chaaklees, Bolingas and Dos are common in most traditional Goan homes, along with Christmas fruit cake and Baath (Coconut) Cake. Sawaiyaan and mithai are also exchanged but the typical Christmas spread is incomplete without the Sorpotel, a spicy dish eaten with rice cakes called Sana’as. These are all prepared prior to Christmas day, during the Advent period, and distributed around the neighbourhood as pre-Christmas gifts.
Come Christmas Eve, churches are packed with families eager to attend the midnight services and offer prayers. It is a remarkable feeling to be standing with your loved ones, awaiting the final toll of the church bell upon midnight, marking the dawn of Christmas. This is followed by a round of the faithful hymn ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ after which the families head home to get some rest before the long and tiring Christmas Day. Just as Muslim and Hindus call upon family and friends on Eid and Diwali respectively, Christmas is the ideal excuse for Christians to socialise and exchange gifts with those they don’t get to meet during the year. The entire community is in high spirits, so much so that the celebrations continue for 12 days after the 25th, until the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6th. Christmas galas, parties and weddings are lined up on for the rest of the season, making it a very busy time of the year.
But amongst all the flurry and excitement, it is the message of Hope, Faith, Joy and Love that Christians wish to convey through the festival. Hope is for a better future for our coming generations, Faith in God and the positive change He will bring, Joy for all the blessings He has given us and lastly, Love which binds us all together. Perhaps a good way to get into the Christmas mood would be to leave you with a verse from the popular Christmas carol, ‘Silver Bells’:
“Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring a-ling, hear them ring
Soon, it will be Christmas day!”
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, December 21st, 2014.