by Anita Cheung
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
So goes one of the liveliest and oldest Christmas carols, with a Welsh melody that dates to the sixteenth century and lyrics which were composed by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant in 1862. Both the words and the lyrics match the general Christmas spirit within English speaking countries. Christmas is a time of cheer, festivities, friends, family, traditions and too much food. And when a ´normal´ Christmas is referred to, many people think of festive times with friends and family, mulled wine (hot red wine fragrant with spices, herbs and fruits) and mince pies (small pastries filled with a mixture made of dried fruit often - but not always - marinated in a favourite liqueur), end of year office parties, playing Secret Santa, singing Christmas carols, Christmas stockings and indulging in gastronomical treats (once or twice!). However, for others, Christmas may be a time of separation from loved ones, or a reduced income impacting traditional celebrations, smaller presents around the tree or no presents at all. But whether it is a Christmas with all the whistles and bells or a simple affair in which thankfulness is the gift that is given and received, the Christmas period is a time that is anticipated with a sense of excitement.
Over the course of time, I have spent Christmas with nine different cultures and countries (France, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Italy, USA, China, New Zealand, England and Spain) and have learned to adapt to different customs. Each country has offered something different in the way that Christmas is celebrated (or not as in the case of China), but in each country and with each celebration (be those great or small), I have learnt something about myself. What I have learnt is that I absolutely love all of the traditions surrounding a traditional English Christmas. I love mulled wine and mince pies. I love Christmas crackers (a colourful wrapped tube containing a Christmas hat, silly joke and small toy which are placed at each setting on the table on Christmas Day and are opened by being pulled apart with one other person) with silly jokes that aren’t funny. I love wearing a paper hat around the Christmas table that makes everyone look ridiculous, but of course, everyone does it! I love encountering carol singers outside supermarkets and in public squares and I love sitting down to a traditional Christmas dinner of roast turkey, roast potatoes, pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon and baked in the oven) followed by a flaming Christmas pudding (a heavy affair of marinated dried fruits that has brandy poured over it at the last minute and then is set on fire and served flaming to the table) that no-one has room for!! However, many times I have celebrated Christmas without these traditions, presents or cards and going without my preferred customs has taught me to view Christmas in a different way. As much as I love my own traditions, I know that these are not the centre of Christmas. As much as I love a traditional Christmas dinner, I have learnt that the kind of food eaten - be it Sri Lankan food eaten with my hands, a homemade Italian pasta or a bowl of noodles - does not define Christmas for me. What defines Christmas for me is not only being with my nearest and dearest, but also being able to reach out and give to others in ways that they are not expecting.
Sometimes we face the Christmas period and we know that we won’t have what we want. Perhaps a tough financial year means that the Christmas dinner is a little different this year or that there are less presents under the tree. Perhaps we are strangers in a new place and don’t have our friends and family around us. Perhaps weather and travel conditions (or the pandemic) prevent us from travelling to be where we really want to be. But does that mean to say that Christmas has to be a sad time? Not at all! Although Christmas may not look the way we want it to be, special ways of giving and celebrating can be found.
In the midst of the Christmas excitement, feel-good Christmas films of a family opening their home to those who are by themselves or acts of kindness that transform someone’s day or life are often shown on television or in the cinema. We love the feeling of Christmas, but just how far are we prepared to go to embrace what Christmas is really about? The Christmas spirit is about giving and not expecting to receive anything in return as this is the basis of the first Christmas that took place in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. The world we want is the one where those who are alone are welcomed in and are given a place in the midst of warmth and laughter. And to be honest, this is a long way from our normal traditions of giving to those who give back to us, sharing our food with those who are likely to reciprocate the invitation and indulging until we have no other choice other than to activate the New Year’s resolutions which will last ten days - if we’re lucky!
So as I personally contemplate this subject, I know that the only answer to making a difference is to be different. Reaching out to others doesn't mean excluding our nearest and dearest, but it does mean that we will view the Christmas season and those around us in a different way. Perhaps that means that we will give a few extra coins to the charity collectors or carol singers outside the supermarket. Perhaps we even have enough time and money in our pockets to ask the homeless man begging when he last ate and what kind of sandwich, soup or coffee he would prefer. Perhaps we will be presented with a random moment of inspiration to bring joy into someone's day in an unexpected way. Perhaps we have the opportunity to give an unexpected gift to someone who has been consistent in their service to us throughout the year - a hairdresser, checkout assistant, bus driver or the waitress at a favourite cafe. Perhaps we find unused things around the home that the parents with four children or the solo parent could use. Maybe as we are making our Christmas preparations, we remember someone who is by themselves and we know that there is more than enough food to include one more person. Whatever it is, this year can be a different year and the beginning of new traditions.
However, in order to put new traditions in place, we need to be mindful and intentional. It is all too easy to wake up at the beginning of December, blink, and then realise that Christmas is over, the month having whizzed past us in a blur of activity, social events, preparations, decorations, card writing, food, indulgence and presents. ‘Tis the season to be not only mindful of others, but also kind to others and to share what we have.
In the rich western world, it is often assumed that giving is for those who have a surplus of cash and can afford chic gifts from department stores. Conversely, those gifts are often bought for people who already either have enough or too much of everything. Following another strange year of the pandemic, I feel challenged to to return to simplistic giving - cooking a meal for friends and giving them the night off, sharing any delights I may have been able to conjure up in the kitchen (such as chocolate), let go of the many items filling up corners of my flat which I neither like nor use and be mindful of the homeless person sitting in the cold waiting for kindness and food to arrive. None of these cost hundreds of pounds, euros or dollars, but they do cost each of us awareness and intentionality. Here at Lovejoys, being generous and thinking of others is what we do. ‘Tis the season to spread good cheer and to think of others and if we do, I have no doubt that we will be jolly!