Christmas has a lot of meanings. It is a day for reflection, penitence and reaffirmation of faith for devout Christians. It is also a moment of celebrating community. It is also a time of joy, goodwill, sharing and reunions. To me, it is all of these things. But looking back and especially reflecting on the holiday from a fair distance from familiarities, I realise that the one word I associate most with Christmas is ‘family.’
Christmas is about giving, sharing, loving and forgiving and basically making sacrifices. This I know. Indeed, all Christians know this, although we sometimes forget in the merry-making festival that it has become. Christmas, to me, as it is to all Christians, is about family, which too some of us too often forget. Christmas, to me, is about parents. I knew this as a child, and I know this as a parent. Those childhood Christmas memories are unforgettable. Perhaps my own children, when they are adults, may remember their childhood Christmases in the same way.
The true meaning of Christmas is something that I first learnt from my parents at a very young age. I remember them as the role models they have become, largely due to my memories of how we, my brothers and I, experienced Christmas bathed in the warmth of their giving, their loving and their sacrifice.
December was the happiest month for us. First of all because of the school holidays. Secondly, my mother’s birthday falls on the 23rd of December. Then came Christmas Eve, followed by Christmas. It was therefore a long celebration or rather different kinds of celebration over three whole days.
Of course there were the decorations that came before and lasted until New Year’s Day and a bit longer after that. We loved doing the crib and decorating the Christmas tree, at which my older brother excelled. I do my best along with my wife to replicate everything I’ve learnt about Christmas from my parents and maybe they’ll remember and cherish. For me or for some part of me, it is incomplete. It seem incomplete because I’m so far removed from my parents and brothers. Two Christmases have come and gone, but my arms aren’t long enough to embrace them and share the joy and warmth that’s sustained all of us all these years.
How can I explain such absences? I do not know. All I know is that my mother was a person who taught us the importance of friendship and loyalty. She always insisted that we must stand by a true and honest friend even if the whole world is against that person. It is from her that I learnt that whenever I am confused, I should try to consider things from the point of view of the poorest, the most vulnerable. She taught us that the more you give, the more you have for yourself. It was not that she lectured us. She lived and personified these values, these lessons. My friends would joke that she was poor at math and had got the equation wrong, but I know now that she was right. We give and we received in excess. My father shared different values. He was always very religious. It is from him that I learnt the importance of family values. For him family came first. Whereas my mother could be emotional and selfless, he was methodical, practical and extremely logical. Together they taught me almost everything I know about life, especially that in a moment of crisis, one must not expect that anyone other than family and your most loyal friends who will stand by you.
Another Christmas has come upon us. It is yet another moment to cherish the extraordinary love, affection and the sacrifices our parents have made to make us who we are today. It is a time to reflect on all the positive things our parents have done for us and thank them in abundance.
I wish I could say ‘happy birthday’ to Amma in person, and that I could hug her as though I do not wish to break away. I wish I could say ‘Merry Christmas’ to Thaththa in person. I cannot. Knowing them, they will understand. They will not take my absence as any indication of love and appreciation having eroded over the years. They understand. They are giving. They are forgiving. When I say that I’ve never seen love purer than that which from their eyes cascade, they will understand. So too will all parents, Christian or otherwise, at Christmas and other times too. Christmas is something we should hold in our hearts, they taught me. It is a moment to reaffirm the timeless truth that there’s virtue in being grateful for what we have and to bear with dignity that which we do not, including absences.
There’s a part of me that grieves and a part that is strong. These are attributes that my parents have, in their unassuming and tender ways, grafted onto my heart and onto my soul. When I say ‘happy birthday Amma,’ she will not notice absence, but the truth of the sentiments expressed. When I say ‘Merry Christmas Thaththa,’ he too will embrace the sentiments in much the same way. And in this way, they will make even this distant Christmas as rich and warm as any that I have spent at home, in their company and in the circle of their love.