It is time to sing old songs. It is time to reflect on the miracle in Bethlehem. It is the season of Christmas.
There were the Christmas carols we sang in school. The Dutch missionaries who ran the school would speak to us of the love of Jesus, of the generous God who lived up there somewhere in an exalted place called heaven. Not yet ten, we sang the psalms towards the end of the school day, which meant the final forty minutes, or period. Mr. Cardeaux, who we later learnt had been with the British air force in the Second World War and who was from Malta, played the piano beautifully as we sang. There was the innocence that comes with being caught in the ambience of childhood. We would sing on, would not stop, until Mr. Cardeaux gently told us, in almost grandfather-like manner, “It’s all right, boys. Time to stop.” We who had been singing with our eyes closed now opened them, feeling sheepish at knowing that the piano had stopped making melody quite a while back.
It is those cold, crisp days in long-ago Decembers I go back to as I watch the Christmas lights go on all across London this December. The association of cold winters, thoughts of Jesus Christ and religiosity assumes a potent shape as darkness descends fast and purposefully in a western clime. The winds whistle through the trees. But then, Christmas has for me always been a lyrical affair which has brought together gusts of bitter cold winds along with the knowledge that somewhere up there lives a Creator who speaks to us of Christ, indeed of the spirituality which has underpinned religion, every religion, and so given it its essence. Perhaps no remembrance of Christmas, for me, can be greater than the thrill which came as the astronauts of Apollo 8 rounded the dark side of the moon in December 1968. I was in high school, caught up in the frenzy of a year unlike any other year. After Tet in Vietnam, after the King and Kennedy assassinations, after the near revolution in France, it was thrilling to watch Richard Nixon become president of the United States. And it was ecstasy to hear Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, read out deeply, from far out in space, that pristine, soulful message from Genesis on Christmas Eve:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth / And the earth was without form and void / And darkness was on the face of the deep /And God said, ‘Let there be light’ . . .”
Creation was suddenly a magical moment in time and space. I looked out into the cold, dark, moonlit sky. Up there somewhere the astronauts were circling the moon and below, on earth, as if to add substance to the loneliness we inhabited in the universe, the voice of Mukesh wafted along on Ceylon Radio’s year-end Binaca Geetmala. He sang chal akela chal akela chal akela tera mela peechhe chhoota rahi chal akela. It snowed that night. The winds tore into the cheeks and went all the way into the bloodstream. And yet there was warmth knowing that there was a purpose to life, a lustre to man’s ambition of probing everything that lay beyond earth.
Christmas came by a reassertion of meaning, indeed took on new purpose, in Bangladesh nine days into the nation’s freedom in 1971. After months of war, a conflict that had claimed the lives of millions, the sight of the country’s Christians celebrating Jesus and his life in a free land was a profoundly stirring image of a nation that had rediscovered its secular ethos. Only a year earlier, as workers staged noisy protests in Gdansk, Poland faced the prospect of a morose Christmas. It was the arrival of Edward Gierek that had saved the situation. Wladyslaw Gomulka had fled.
Christmas has been a joy, in boyhood and then in youth. On Dilu Road here in this city, it was always an occasion for reunion at the Mascarenhas’, until the entire clan went off in search of newer, kinder climes in America. Celebrations of Christmas in childhood came through a boring into picturesque — and pictorial — little books called Classics Illustrated Junior. And then, of course, there was the imagination at play — of hundreds of Christmas trees lighting up the cold, desolate streets of the world, of Santa Claus stealthily and gingerly stepping into the room through a window kept ajar for him and leaving an array of gifts behind. It was jingle bells, jingle bells all the way.
When Christmas rounds the corner, it is the old fairy tales I go back to. Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White and her seven dwarfs . . . they return. Between the folds of time, there is the snow that shrouds the world in layers of purity. And then there is the blood that Jesus Christ shed in defence of God’s truth.
Through the bare branches of nocturnal trees, through the deserted streets of time, it is a shining City on the Hill I go looking for on Christmas Eve. Every faith becomes mine. I am claimed by every religion. I renew my ties with God.