Monday, December 24, 2007

Lincoln Tan: Each to his own magic

5. 00AM Monday December 24, 2007
By Lincoln Tan

Christmas Eve has always been a special day for me, even as a child growing up in a Buddhist family in Singapore.

Every Christmas evening, I always looked forward to the food trays the neighbours would bring to us full of Christmas goodies such as fruit cake, pineapple tarts and candies.

After devouring my favourites, I would happily help Mum place chocolates and biscuits on the trays and take them back to the neighbours with a note of thanks and a Christmas card.

A magical feel always seemed to follow the Christmas festivities, and with the common business practice there of paying year-end bonuses, having some extra money around always set Dad in a happier mood.

After supper, I would meet the other neighbourhood kids at the playground and we'd spend hours stargazing and enter into deep discussions about how Santa was goingto get into our flats, which had no chimneys.

We'd talk about the naughty things we did over the year, and wonder if we'd still get any presents from Santa, before retiring to our respective homes.

And no, most of us kids didn't have a clue Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ.

Like me, most of these kids were non-Christians - they were mainly Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus - and although we didn't celebrate Christmas in the religious sense, most of us would have had Christmas trees at our homes for presents to be placed under.

What I remember of my childhood Christmas was that it was so unlike Chinese New Year, Hari Raya or Diwali because it was the only festival the entire neighbourhood celebrated, although each would do it in his or her own way.

The annual Christmas rituals ended when we moved to a new estate when I was about 9, and everything changed when Mum registered me for tuition classes at a home-based church.

After each class, there would be a sing-along session and a short sermon by the church elder and it was during one of these sermons that I was told, for the first time, that the person I have known all along as the one who made Christmas was just an evil myth.

The elder claimed commercialism had squeezed Christ out of Christmas and said Santa must be banished from our homes. He also made us draw Christmas cards with the words: Christ is born, Santa gone. I was told that everything I liked and enjoyed about the Christmas season - the tinsels and decorations and lights in the malls, and even writing my annual wish list to Santa - had actually nothing to do with Christmas.

The real reason for Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe is the Son of God, the elder said. Everything else was the work of the devil.

Although I understood better what this elder said when I became a Catholic in my late teens, I still cannot help feeling that in his attempt to instil his beliefs in me, he had robbed me of some Christmas magic.

I read with interest the arguments of the two Anglican priests who recently wrote in the pages of this newspaper.

Archdeacon Glynn Cardy of St Matthew-in-the-City wrote that Christmas was now about more than just Jesus and embracing universal values is the best reason for the season. He was countered by Hamilton vicar Michael Hewatt arguing that we all lose if Jesus is cut from Christmas. Hewatt wrote: "I do not like the idea that Jesus is no longer the primary reason, or reason enough for celebrating Christmas."

Christmas has become a universal celebration with a much larger secular appeal than a religious one, so whether the vicar likes it or not, how it is celebrated is now no longer the sole domain of Christianity.

Also, the changing face of New Zealand - where 45 per cent of Kiwis in the last Census professed to either possessing no religion or faiths other than Christianity - means that for many, Christmas is no longer about going to church or remembering Jesus' birth.

Maybe those fundamentalists who have long decried its commercialisation must come to terms with the fact that Christmas means different things to different people.

To many, Christmas is a time when we remember those dear to us, but as Christians give presents as a reminder of the spiritual meaning of Christmas when God gave mankind the ultimate gift - himself - non-believers should not be denied the joy of giving gifts purely to show they are thinking beyond themselves.

At this time of the year, a part of me remains forever the 8-year-old stargazing with his friends and waiting for Santa. Through my own 8-year-old son and a daughter who is 5, I get to relive some of the magic from seasons long gone.

Some things never change and Christmas will continue to be the annual highlight for children of any race.

Instead of arguing about what the right reason for the season is, maybe we should just enjoy the magic of Christmas as these children would.

Have a merry Christmas everyone - whatever your faith may be.


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