After the customary unpacking of Christmas stockings (all tangerines and chocolates present and correct) and lighting a Christmas fire, the Yuletide proceedings were a little different this year.
My sister, a midwife, was doing house visits in her hospital’s borough of Chelsea, so I accompanied her, curious at what London would be like on Christmas Day. In my childish mind’s eye I imagined streets totally abandoned, but for a few stray dogs, music streaming from windows and church bells ringing on every corner. A city frozen, all service drawn to a halt to eat mince pies and listen to Cliff Richard.
Reality wasn’t so far off, but not quite so dramatic. We cruised around the quiet streets, making stops at the homes of babies not more than a week old. I sat in the car and chanted on my japa mala, watching the people passing by – Asian tourists escaping their hotel rooms, ladies in Christmas pyjamas giggling and walking boisterous dogs, huddles of Muslim men dressed in traditional attire, talking reservedly. There was a beautiful peace to the air. Tube stations’ jaws were firmly closed and even the 24 hour groceries were shut and darkened. The sun shone bravely through the hazy cloud, gilding Chelsea harbour to picture perfection. There were no carols on the breeze, snow, or sleighbells, but it was a pleasant change from the norm.
Growing up in a Hare Krishna household, with parents still nostalgically connected to their Jewish and Methodist roots, we always had an interesting relationship with seasonal holidays. Chanukah, with its sober overtones and more stringent rituals got less of a look in, but Christmas on the other hand, was enthusiastically adopted as soon as we were old enough to realise that everyone else we knew was celebrating it.
But it was not your average. Our two frail coconut palms on either side of our altar were joined together and draped in a string of lights. My father was adamant that we understand exactly why we were celebrating so we always attended the evening carol service at our local church, joining in with gusto. I vividly remember Christmas morning, waking up at 4am, wild with excitement to rip open presents. I had a blond, pudgy baby doll who I called ‘baby Jesus’, and my Dad made us offer an arati oil lamp to him before proceedings could continue. Then we had to offer our newly received presents on the altar before playing with them. I accepted it all as normal. Now I know it was exceedingly abnormal, but I am grateful for the broad perspective it helped to give, whilst reinforcing key principles that have become too deep to easily depart from.
Whilst I don’t get so excited about it anymore, I do appreciate the small things – how it still unites people, no matter what their faith in Christ. Smiles flow a little more freely, as does kindness toward strangers. For many it is the one time of year that they step inside a place of worship, and offer their voice in communal song, and for others the season where they make a pointed endeavour to support those in need.
And though our family traditions were a little unusual, I have to conclude that the most satisfying festival is definitely that which has a firmly devotional heart. Whether it takes offering arati to baby Jesus, or not…I leave that to you.
Merry Christmas, every one.