Orville Taylor | What Christmas means to me - Christmas musings 2016
Let's just accept that Christmas is a secular holiday that is intended for family and friends to come together, take a long break from work and school, and have some warmth and fun. Apart from the fat white man with the cotton wool beard and the stupid-looking decorations, my discomfort with many of the Christmas traditions has to do with myriad references to other cultures and societies, which made the Christmas carols so stupid for a little black child growing up on an island full of coconut, mango, and guinep trees.
It takes a really solid dose of colonial brainwashing to have a neon-black Jamaican man, dressed up in a thick red suit, chuckling, "Ho, ho, ho!" while the 908-Fahrenheit ambient temperature is threatening to bake him like a Jamaican patty. Imagine the ignominy of singing about Good King Wenceslas who looked out on the "snow on the ground; deep and crisp and even". And we sang it as if we knew what the hell we were singing about. For me, it was the white lime that poor people daubed around their neighbourhoods that was the proxy for the snow, but we knew that the foam and other substitutes were simply out of place.
Apart from the ludicrousness of flying reindeer and a rejected faun who led Santa Claus's team, the Christmas carols were simply alien. Mistletoe, boughs of holly, chestnuts roasting, white Christmas, turkey, Jack Frost all pointed to something we didn't have, and somehow, we were made to feel less, as Third World children, that we didn't possess these.
With the exception of my Labourite associates, the Jingle Bells and Silver Bells songs were also out-of-place imports and left me hanging like the ice on the boughs of the trees. Today, despite my love for the podium and microphone, I am still horrified by the "I for the ice on the boughs of the trees, Jack Frost made it last night when it started to freeze," that I was forced to remember from my grade five Christmas pageant.
None of these were truly about Christ's birth, and as I later came to research, much of Christmas and other religious festivals are really carryovers from pre-existing 'pagan' rituals. These include the most revered period of Lent, which includes Ash Wednesday and Easter. Therefore, there is no delusion about this being the birthday of Jesus. In all likelihood, bearing in mind the season of the year as reported in the gospel, He would have been born in September and, indeed, would justifiably be a Virgo, who walked among men. Of course, He might have had a better relationship with Mary Magdalene than theologians suggest, but that is a discussion for another time.
THE STUFF OF LEGEND
The issue of Christ's birth is the stuff of legend. We hear that He was born in a stable; angels sang when He was born; there were three wise men who visited Him almost immediately after His birth. Mary rode on a donkey, and a moving star lit the path of the wise men and led them to the newborn. Now, these are purportedly biblical stories that have literally been taken as gospel. However, nothing in any of the versions of the Bible gives these details. These are the filling in of the imagination by Christian zealots over time.
Indeed, even the most serene and sombre of carols have factual errors. Thus, Silent Night has the non-biblical reference "Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia," and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing repeats this wishful anecdote. Yet these 'truths' have led to the reverence regarding Christmas to such an extent that the so-called religious purists repugn the secularisation, paganisation, and commercialisation of the celebration.
The point is, even the religious basis is itself embellished by influences outside of the Bible. Thus, Christmas is simply a hodgepodge of centuries of different cultures linking up.
Jamaican Christmases are no exception. Along with the deeply religious rituals of Christmas morning service, Mass or worship, which came along with the European colonials, we have imported the American version of the European Sinter Klaus, carolling, Christmas ham, and the other aforementioned paraphernalia, including spending one's last dollar or the one which was borrowed from the church mouse.
Nonetheless, some very distinct Jamaican traditions are direct African retentions or syncretic developments on the plantation. These include Jonkanoo, Dinki Mini, and, of course, the very unique Christmas flower that we make into a delectable drink - sorrel. In fact, so distinct is the Jamaican ownership of this drink that across all of Latin America, it is known as 'Jamaica' - pronounced, 'Ha-my-ka'. For many households, it is the pot roast and pork, along with green gungo rice and peas.
Still, whether religious or not, traditional Jamaican Christmases meant peace and goodwill and giving of gifts if one could afford it. However, more important is the sharing of meals and drinks with family, friends, and neighbours. Christmas is for me not about worshipping the Lord in the off-key hymns and solemn carols which we have to endure as the deaconess continues to force herself on to the choir because it was her Grandpa's church. As a matter of fact, it is almost sheer hypocrisy and perhaps unchristian to treat one's peers and relatives poorly all year and then expect that one can worship with a clear conscience.
The best Christmas tradition is that bit of fellowship, where we remind ourselves that we are our brother's keeper. As simple as it might seem, these small rituals go a long way in maintaining community bond and, perhaps, ultimately, keep the level of crime down.
Count me in. My unbroken Christmas tradition, which I have maintained every year since 1978, is a drink with my bredren Jubba, and I have spent at least one hour in the community I grew up in. I hope this continues today.
- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.