Does Santa have to come to town?

By Rukshani Weerasooriya

We are at the brink of Christmas once again – a time when tropical Sri Lanka unanimously croons about snow topped houses, chimneys, strange-nosed reindeer, wreathes of mistletoe, roasting chestnuts and all sorts of other quaint things we’ve never actually seen on the island.

Needless to say, I find this a little odd. Especially with regard to the weird obsession commonly held with the old man in red who mysteriously appears just when uncle so-and-so goes out to see if he can get more Pepsi for the Christmas party at home. And why does this creature wear a dress anyway, and a white mask with a cotton-wool beard? Are we really supposed to find him cute and cuddly? I know I wasn’t the only kid freaking out uncontrollably when ‘Santa’ appeared unannounced dressed in that hideous outfit of his and handed out things I didn’t remember asking him for.

Perhaps it is the result of a psychological hangover of my childhood Christmases that tends to make me cynical about the current commercial (and often downright ridiculous) approach taken to it today. I suppose it doesn’t help that I have spent ‘the season’ in about five different countries over the years, significantly adding to my general distaste of the cultural corruption of the Christmas celebration.

What is Christmas anyway? Contrary to popular opinion, it is not ‘a time to make merry’ or to ‘be joyful and giving.’ Also, much to Hollywood’s disappointment, it is impossible to ‘cancel’ Christmas (or even to ‘save’ it) by being bad, good or generally grouchy. In short, Christmas has nothing to do with the traditions that have grown up around it. Its message remains the same whether or not we ‘believe’ in Santa, give presents, decorate half-wilted pine trees from Nuwara Eliya or get hampers from work.

Christmas is the commemoration of the birth of Christ – a historical fact that doesn’t depend on culture or religion or mythical figures such as flying reindeer. Where did I get this information from – the Bible – a book written a few thousand years before the invention of Santa Clause, Rudolf, Frosty and all our other favourite Christmas friends.

Because we’ve all been in a nativity play at some point in our lives, we think we know all about the Christmas story. But do we really have any idea? In the words of an old Hebrew prophet, the Christ of Christmas was sent to ‘bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes…and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.’

What this means is that Christmas is a time to realize we – as human beings – no matter how successful, intellectual or hardworking we are – lack the strength to mend our own broken hearts, free ourselves from the things we have become captive to, deal with the things that hurt us inexplicably. Do we, in ourselves, have the ability to turn our ashes in to beauty, or to transform our despair into joyful praise?

In all honesty, I can’t do or be any of this – not without the strength that comes from believing in the Christmas that was originally intended. It is this message that has the power to transcend culture and tradition and to be the one true constant we so badly need in this day and age. I know I can’t think of anyone who couldn’t use some mending, freeing, comfort or transformation. Life is hard – we need no reminder of it, and of course a party is good for the health every now and then. But let this Christmas be different. Let’s not use it as just another cheap excuse to make merry! (We have birthdays for that, don’t we?)

Whether or not Santa comes, or parties happen, or gifts are given, I hope you have a meaningful Christmas season instead of just a make-believe happy feeling. May your Christmas be full of the peace, wonder, strength and assurance that is yours for the taking in the true Christmas of Bethl ehem.

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