25 Dec 2016 15:57 IST

The festive spirit

What does it mean? And what does it have to do with learning new languages?

It’s likely that no festival is as widely known as Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Baby Jesus. All over the world, the last few days of the year — beginning just before Christmas and leading in to the New Year — evoke a holiday season with an unmistakable air of lightness and joy.

As is to be expected, there’s plenty of controversy among scholars regarding the exactitude or veracity of the date. However, in the popular culture, December 25 is sacrosanct. The beautiful thing is, you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas. Indeed, you don’t have to belong to any religious denomination to celebrate any festival. Christmas reminds us that it’s the spirit that counts.

The other day at work, we stuffed ourselves with delicious Christmas cakes, rum, orange peel, even Eggless and all! Tiny shops around the Kapaleeshwar temple in Mylapore, Chennai, are doing brisk business in Christmas trees, tinsel and toppings. Cottonwool-snow decorates shop windows and everyone acknowledges green and red as the colours of the season.

Christmas carols echo in the breeze and TV channels show Christmas-themed movies, repeated ad nauseam. There are ever so many of them: Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone, The Polar Express, 101 Dalmatians, While You Were Sleeping, Love Actually… You can watch them over and over and still be entertained every time.

What’s their secret?

It’s the message. It has to be. The message of peace on earth and goodwill towards all goes beyond any physical representation. It’s a mantra for life, a hook of hope that our sadly embittered world desperately hangs its heart on.

The message of Christmas has inspired writers over the years, and I’m not referring to the nativity aspect, even though the story of how Mary and Joseph went looking for a room in the inn, and how Christ was born in a manger, and how three wise men worshipped before the newborn babe is charming and moving.

Probably the most famous book on the subject is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Among younger readers, How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss scores well. Then there’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. And a brilliant wordless picture book by Raymond Briggs called The Snowman. If you haven’t seen it, ferret it out and linger over its pages. You will not regret it. And if you’re not moved by O Henry’s short story, The Gift of the Magi, I’m willing to try to stand on my head.

Even Truman Capote has a Christmas story, called A Christmas Memory. Lousia May Alcott’s classic, Little Women, opens with the lines: ‘“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug’ — and what a draw that is, to this day.

Durga puja is not Durga puja without pandals and food. Navaratri is nothing without the Ramlila and dolls, just as the Eids cannot be celebrated without sevian and new clothes… But these are just outer, material things. What lies at the heart of festivals across religious denominations, is the desire for a world in which people are good, and kind, and respectful, and sharing, and thankful.

Read between the lines of these desires and what you will find is hope — hope that in such a world, everyone will be free to pursue their dreams freely and worship without fear. Although the multifarious paths of religion lead us on divergent roads that may never cross or even meet, the destinations are more or less similar: Who doesn’t want peace? Who doesn’t seek prosperity?

The colours of our clothes may be different, but the colours of the sunrise are not. The objects of our devotion may vary but not the planets, the stars and the galaxies. The moon whose absence signifies Diwali is the same moon whose presence signifies the breaking of the Ramzan fast and one whose fullness shines its light upon harvest dancing and feasting.

Three wise men followed the star of Bethlehem, even as the devout Dhruva became the steadfast pole star. We stand upon the same sand on the same shores, we build our homes on the same soil with the same materials, we use the same ingredients to cook a diverse smorgasbord of dishes and we display enjoyment of meals in our own unique ways. Yes, when we’re happy and we know it, we show it.

As the protagonist in this sort-of Christmas story told me by an elderly uncle who dropped in on us the other day.

A child called Saya was orphaned early, and he was tossed from family to family, not in a bad way, but with each family doing what they could as long as they could, and then passing him along.

Saya kept his head down and studied hard, adjusting to each situation with fortitude. Then one day, he was spotted by my uncle’s father, a professor, who took him home, encouraged him to study further, and made him part of his family. Soon, Saya got a job and from then on, there was no looking back.

He grew from strength to strength, and today, he’s become a person of wealth and standing. But although he has shot up the ladder of success, he hasn’t moved away from those who helped him climb that ladder, step by step. The roles are reversed, and today, he showers his adopted family with much love and generosity. It’s an apocryphal story. It’s a Christmassy story. And in the true spirit of Christmas, it’s a true story. All of us have heard such stories, true stories.

Which means that in the end, same, different, rich, poor, what does it matter? It’s the message that counts and the message is always the same. Therefore, it’s time we learned a few more languages. The language of understanding, for a start. And accepting. And getting along. And helping each other.

Where are you on this language learning curve?

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