It is the week before Christmas. Let me refer to the famous poem, ‘It was the Night before Christmas’, which was first published anonymously in 1823. And a few years later, Clement Clark More claimed its authorship. It had great impact in America and beyond as regards the tradition of giving Christmas gifts. The story in the poem is about St. Nicholas (also called Father Christmas and Santa Claus) who flies in on his sledge pulled by reindeers, and he enters the house through the chimney and fills the stockings hanging on the fireplace with gifts. Then he is off, probably to the next house, laughing and saying “Happy Christmas to all; and to all a good night”. And the children who are sleepy and drowsy think they saw and heard it all because when they wake up the next morning, the gifts are in the stockings, and mum and dad pretend they don’t know a thing.

Poet Clement Clark More – and Santa Claus – has been given credit for the rise of the gift-giving tradition, today cherished by retail traders all over the world – and children. Christmas has become commercialised, but so have Eid-ul-Azha and other religious events; shopkeepers depend on this trade for a major part of their all-year profit. I am not against it either, and capitalism does worse in many other fields.

When it all settles down after Christmas dinner in the home, when satisfied children and grandparents are asleep – yes, then, we may sit for a moment and reflect on the good life we have been given, thinking about those we love and worry about. We may remember to thank God, too, in a silent prayer, which may also include a mention of our financial needs for next month and year since we overspent on the Christmas celebrations, not only for ourselves but also a bit for charity.

Caroline Krook, the retired renowned Stockholm bishop, held a short prayer service on Swedish TV last Saturday evening, which I had the opportunity to watch on my laptop in Islamabad. She mentioned the Swedish tradition of ‘Lucia’, which is celebrated in churches, schools and other locations in the morning of 13 December, giving a unique feeling of peace and sacredness to all. Young girls and boys, carrying candles and singing the serene and beautiful ‘Luciasången’ and other hymns, would remind everyone of the togetherness of all people under God’s starlit sky in mid-winter. It is a festival of light and peace on earth, which can be appreciated by everyone, Christian, Muslim and faithful in other religions, and also those who are not all that religious.

Astrid Lindgren (1833-1902), the internationally famous Swedish writer of children’s literature, essays and poems, once said: “I pray to God when I need him the most.” Many of us are like Astrid Lindgren, even those who follow all the religious rituals and prayers that are expected of us, yet, done quite outwardly with little deeper reflection. No, wonder then that Bishop Caroline Krook prayed for us all to find time to open our heart to God’s message, indeed over Christmas. And no wonder that Astrid Lindgren became so loved because she put words to ordinary people’s lives, thoughts and dreams, often through children’s and everyday people’s language.

One popular song by Astrid Lindgren is entitled ‘Poor Farm Worker’ (in Swedish, ‘Fattig bonddräng’, or ‘Kisan’ in Urdu). The farmworker doesn’t always behave quite as he should, well, as the priest would have liked him to. Yet, he labours day out and day in for meagre wages, and he always does his best. When the Saturday nights come, he wants to have some fun and take a drink, maybe attend a dance party and enjoy the company of a pretty girl, and show off his muscles in a fight with his friends and competitors. In Astrid Lindgren’s story, when the poor farmworker at the end of life stands at the heaven’s gate, when he is to meet his creator, he is worried and humble. But God says: “Come here, ‘Kisan’. I have seen your struggle and persistent hard work. Therefore, ‘Kisan’, I welcome you in and to be near me.” He gets dressed in the whitest garments that he has ever seen, like a ‘shalwar kameez’ for a feast, and the Lord says: “All your work has been done. Now, poor farm worker, finally you can rest.”

This is not quite a Christmas song, but it could have been, and maybe it easier to relate to than many of the other songs and carols, which often are so deep and in such complicated language that we ordinary people cannot quite understand it all – the mystery and message of Christmas. Bishop Caroline Krook said that it was only as an adult that she had understood the word ‘under’, which in Swedish can mean two things: ‘under’ as in the preposition. But in Swedish, it also means ‘miracle’.

Yes, Christmas and the birth of Jesus is a mystery and a miracle. Christians refer to the newborn child as the ‘Son of God’, but what that means is difficult to comprehend. He was God’s messenger, interpreting his words in new and more relevant forms, using parables and stories. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was also a God’s messenger, and the Quran says he was the last prophet. Christians and Muslims all believe that Jesus was conceived by divine intervention, that he ascended to heaven, and that he will return in a second coming. The mother of Jesus, Mary or Maryam, has a prominent place both in the Bible and the Quran; Joseph or Yusuf, is again included in the texts in both holy books.

In Pakistan, and in the multi-cultural and multi-religious world we live in, with more communication across borders than ever before, it is essential to realise the closeness of the two religions, as well as Judaism. The Abrahamic religions, and all other religions, have commonalities that we should see and appreciate. All human communities have a religion, today, often more than one. To what degree people are believers should be left to them; it is not for others to judge. Faith is ultimately a gift from God, and should not be seen only as an achievement based on own efforts.

As Christmas approaches – and if we have time in the midst of all the daily hustle and bustle, the gift-buying and special preparations for the holidays – we must take time off to reflect on the deeper meaning of Christmas and the ‘new covenant with God’. The season is especially important to Christians, but also to faithful in other religions and searchers of the sacred in other traditions.

It is the week before Christmas. The upcoming event is mainly for Christians, yet, it is for all people, because Christmas, Eid, Diwali, Hanukkah, and other religious events help us on the way to see more of God, with the help of his messengers. God is in us and around, in all human beings, even the least assuming ones in the humblest of environments. Jesus was born in a stable, and it was the herdsmen at night who first heard about it. Joseph was a carpenter and Jesus was trained to be one – and a God’s messenger.

Dear readers, may I wish you all A Merry Christmas.

 

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com