IT’S been a tough autumn and the opening months of 2012 look set to be equally difficult. Finally, however, it’s Christmas and most of Europe is taking a much-needed break from work, stress and professional obligations.
Most European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are locking up the office, leaving their woes behind and heading off on holiday with family and friends. Having been in the eye of the euro storm for the last year, Merkel certainly needs the break. But so do millions of ordinary Europeans who have spent the last 12 months wondering if the euro and the European Union are going to survive.
We still don’t know for sure. The last EU euro rescue package has left markets unimpressed. Britain appears to be treading a lonely path to life outside the EU. Greece and Italy are scrambling to put their financial houses in order. But for the next few days, Europe will take time off.
I like Christmas — and I like this time of the year. This is indeed a time for family get-togethers, hope and celebration of life.
Of course, it’s dark and cold and the nights are much longer than the days. Over the years, tawdry commercial overtones have come to tarnish the spirit of Christmas. Special decorations and Xmas discounts start appearing in shops as early as October in some cities. And it’s true that not everyone buys into the spirit of give and take and love and forgiveness that is supposed to mark the anniversary of the birth of Jesus.
Demonstrations by unhappy workers in Brussels on Thursday brought parts of the city to a standstill. People on the move live in fear of strikes at airports and railway stations at Christmas. And governments across Europe are braced for similar unrest as they continue to implement stringent austerity measures But I cannot help but be moved by the ‘season of goodwill’. The little girl lurking inside me likes how even the most unimpressive cities take on an aura of light and beauty at this time of the year. I love brightly lit-up Christmas trees, the glitter and shine of Christmas decorations, mysterious presents and even the Father Christmas and Santa Claus look-a-likes that appear out of nowhere in crowded shopping malls.
The truth is: Father Christmas and I go back a long, long way. It’s probably religiously incorrect to say so in modern-day Pakistan, but I remember a time when men with beards were a rarity in the country except for the appearance in December of a motley group of Santas.
My mother has pictures of a serious little girl gingerly accepting a present from a friendly Santa. It was at the once mythical Metropole Hotel in Karachi — yes the very same building whose remaining façade now looks so shabby and sad.
The Metropole and the Palace Hotel vied with each other to hold the best children’s Christmas party. Spoilt as we were, my sister and I went to both sets of festivities, determined not to be excluded from the fun and games — and the presents handed out by Santa.Those parties are now history of course. Even private clubs which had the courage to organise special events for Christmas appear too afraid of the intolerant extremists to do so.
I have some sympathy for those who say we should distance ourselves from the practices of the subcontinent’s colonial past and instead celebrate and cherish our own religious and cultural traditions. But here’s the thing: Christians and Christianity are part of the Pakistani social fabric, contributing in myriad ways to the country’s economic, social and — when allowed — political life.
The Sufi traditions I grew up with are under threat and deemed unacceptable by an orthodox and conservative religious minority which seems to be calling the shots (quite literally) in today’s Pakistan. But the fact is that Christians are part of Pakistan’s history and culture. It’s the hardline version of Islam taking hold in parts of the country which is foreign.
In Pakistan’s case, the past really does seem to be another country. I remember a tolerant and happy land where people of all races, religions and ethnicity lived in peace together. Friendships, love affairs and marriages across ethnic and other ‘barriers’ were frequent. Girls were allowed to have fun. Boys did not think being a man required carrying a gun.
Like others in Europe, for years, I made it a point to head home every Christmas, my son and daughter in tow, loving every minute of being back with their grandparents. My open, generous and tolerant parents made sure my half-Spanish children had a taste of real Christmas even if they were in Karachi. We ate turkey and special puddings. There were presents galore and lots of love and laughter.
But times change. The country now marches to a stricter, more austere tune. Pakistan seems less enticing and attractive. Most years, I’d rather spend Christmas in Europe. My childhood fascination with Santa, however, remains alive. Some years ago, while covering a Nato meeting in northern Finland, I realised to my delight that I was in the town of Rovaniemi where, as legend has it, Santa Claus spends most of his time. There is even a Santa Claus Village for tourists to visit.
Disappointingly, I did not run into Santa or his little helpers. But the locals insisted he was around. So I left a nice card for him at the post office. He has not replied yet — but I have not lost hope.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.