And just like that, it’s Christmas. It didn’t sneak up on us, but literally jumped in the road in front of us and shouted “Surprise”. Maybe it has something to do with age, but it feels like Christmas 2017 was not too long ago.
For the past month and a bit already, the shops in the malls have tried to warm us up to the idea of Christmas and the festive season in general. The strains of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas and Boney M’s Mary’s Boy Child have been playing at full volume in many supermarkets.
In Cape Town, the city that I call home, Christmas has always been more than a Christian religious holiday. It is a day that is celebrated by many people who would not describe themselves as Christians, including many who might not even describe themselves as believers.
The day has always had a unifying role in Cape Town, maybe because Capetonians have always in the main been reasonably tolerant and accepting of people who are perceived to be different from them. The growth of the interfaith movement in Cape Town is evidence that while religion is an important identity marker in Cape Town, it’s important not to use it as a divisive tool, but rather to look at ways it can be used to unite people.
Many, if not most, people on the Cape Flats, where I grew up, have families where relatives practise different faiths, mainly Christianity and Islam. It is not uncommon for brothers and sisters to practise different religions, with some changing faiths because of marriage. Some people change faiths because of conviction, believing that they will find greater salvation in one faith over another. In many families, changing religions is frowned upon, and families have been known to split because of relatives changing religion. But this remains a minority.
One of the most frustrating things for me is when people assume their religion is better than others and they spend most of their time trying to convince everyone that this is so. Contrary to popular belief, people are not born with religion, but are assigned a religion by their parents, and this then gets affirmed by the rest of their family and, later, peers and friends.
For me, Christmas has always been an opportunity to reflect on the things that I value most in life, such as family and friends. Because most people tend to take a break during this period, it becomes easy to arrange family and friend get-togethers. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on the many friends and family members we have lost. But it should also provide an opportunity to reflect on society, and especially the inequality that exists, and appears to be growing, in a country such as South Africa.
In what has become the commercialisation of a celebration meant to mark the birth of Jesus Christ, how many people reflect on the needy in society? More importantly, how many people decide to do something, to make a small difference in the lives of those who don’t have the luxury to spend like crazy, and for whom the season could not be more unfestive?
As some of us sit down with our families over Christmas lunches and dinners, spare a thought for those who might not be so lucky, who might have lost their families, or lost their livelihoods because of the downturn in the economy. Not everybody is lucky enough to celebrate Christmas or the festive season. Those who are able to do so should always bear in mind those who are less fortunate or those who have calculatedly decided not to celebrate for whatever reason.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 22 December 2018)