Christmas in Pakistan – how it once was

Published Dec 24, 2011 01:53pm

“Our house would be the brightest and most decorated in the neighbourhood and attracted a lot of attention,” Jennifer Marshall recalls with pride. —Photo by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com
“Our house would be the brightest and most decorated in the neighbourhood and attracted a lot of attention,” Jennifer Marshall recalls with pride. —Photo by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com

Karachi, at this time of the year, used to be engulfed with festive spirit in the 1960s and 1970s. Christmas trees, celebratory lights, figurines of baby Jesus, Santa Claus and Poinsettia flowers remained highlights of the holiday seasons, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, for a very long time.

The Christmas of today, much as everything else in Karachi, has changed immensely. The decorations and props are replaced by metal detectors, police patrol cars and scanners.

For Jennifer Marshall, who was blessed to see the golden age of festive joys in Karachi, the spirit of coexistence topped everything else.

“Christmas was exciting back then because we were much younger,” she reminisces.

“We would go to our neighbours’ doors and sing Christmas carols, regardless of their religious orientations. We always felt welcomed and were invited in for slice of cake or any other form of sweet. Unfortunately, this does not happen anymore because there is so much fear and sense of insecurity.”

A large chunk of Pakistan’s Christian community has migrated to the West in search of a better standard of living, job opportunities and better security, resulting in relatively smaller Christmas gatherings.

Christmas Eve, in those days, was the most exciting part of the year for the Marshalls.

“After the midnight mass, families and friends would get together, chitchat and enjoy.”

“Our house would be the brightest and most decorated in the neighbourhood and attracted a lot of attention,” she recalls with pride.

“We served people with tea, cookies and other homemade delicacies and to be honest, nobody actually cared about what was being served.”

For them, the union was more about happiness, stronger ties and the bond with people professing different faiths and beliefs.

“This has stopped happening because most of our old friends have left the country in pursuit of better living and security.”

“Somehow the winters were colder back then because we would wear layers and layers of clothes and shiver, whilst enjoying the decorations, food and all the random talk.” she adds, with a sad smile.

Food remains the most important aspect of any festival and Christmas is famous for its legendary puddings and cakes.

“My fondest memory associated with Christmas is of all the scrumptious cakes and desserts we baked together.”

Women would get together and dig out ‘centuries old’ baking recipes. However, it is not the taste of cakes that remains nostalgic.

“It is the love, affection, congeniality and freedom to ‘live’ that I recollect and miss the most. It is so difficult to bring families and friends together now.”

Edwin Jacob, a well-travelled engineering professional remains pessimistic about the current state of affairs.

“Very recently, I went to our old baker, for the Christmas cake and overheard a customer asking him ‘why are you baking cakes for Christians?’”

Disheartened by this comment, he feels our religious festivals have become highly prejudiced.

“We did not grow up in such bad times and I wish if we could all become more accommodating to each others’ differences like before.”

Intolerance, sense of insecurity and lack of education are a few issues that have muddled our social and religious lives.

Midnight mass is the hallmark religious ritual, one that remains very close to Marshall’s heart. “I still go to the church on the night of December 24. I remember, in the 1970s and 80 the churches and cathedrals would be packed with the congregation, however, now most worshippers prefer skipping the midnight mass and plan to visit the church on the morning of December 25.”

Even a day that is supposed to spread happiness evokes a sense of fear amongst the Church-goers.

“There are times when even I get this strange feeling that I might not be able to leave the church alive, after the mass ends.”

Minerva John, a young representative of Young Women Christian Association (YWCA), evidently has different views.

“I personally believe that most of the threat and insecurity is self-inflicted. I recently saw a news story entailing gory details about some men who got arrested carrying heavy explosives with intentions to bomb Christmas ceremonies,” she says.

According to her, threats cannot be evaded at all times. “The media exaggerates slightly more than required but this does not stop many people from continuing with what they do. Shia Muslims are threatened every year but they still take out holy processions on the day of Ashura so why can’t we do the same.”

With a more optimistic approach towards the situation than her elders, John believes “when you can’t change things, you might as well plan ways to work around them and not succumb.”

The writer is a reporter at Dawn.com

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Comments (17) (Closed)


malik
Dec 24, 2011 10:49pm
Look at what true Islam teaches,look at the Hadith and not at the bearded money makers. Where is the tolerance that is among the people of the Holy books.
Salman
Dec 24, 2011 10:52pm
It is sad to hear that the pure and fun filled festival of Christamis has been transformed into something of a security threat from the religious fundamentalist in Pakistan. However it must be noted that it is not only Christians who suffer from this mentality. The festival of of EID and other Islamic festivals have also become security concerns.
Syed Quadri
Dec 24, 2011 11:12pm
I read this article with great interest. I used to live in Karachi in the 60's. Even though, I was not born as a Christian,but we lived in part of Karachi where most of the Christian population lived. Area of Saddar was dominated by the impressive St. Patrick's Church. I went to St. Paul's High School.Our family and myself had several Christian friends. We all shared our festivals and events. Christmas was a special occasion and we all respected and joined in the festivities. One of my greatest disappointment has been the intolerance and bigotry that has crept into the present society in Pakistan. I have visited Pakistan several times and see the changes, mostly negative. No wonder people of all faiths, not only Christians wants to leave the country. As a Muslim, it grieves me specially when I see how few of the minorities left in the country are treated. We are supposed to respect and protect them. I want to tell many of my Christian friends that there are still lots of people like me who respect their faith and will only wish them happiness. Merry X' Mas.
Jess Peterson
Dec 25, 2011 10:01am
What happened to change things so drastically. It's terribly sad that people have become so intolerant of others and that even Muslims have a hard time tolerating each other. Very, very sad.
Aasif
Dec 25, 2011 11:23am
This is so disappointing. Shameful is that culture that doesn't allow freedom of religious expression. I remember anxiously waiting for Christmas time and couldn't wait to visit my dad's christian friends homes during this time. And yes I miss those cakes and cookies... Oh I'm so sorry for our state of ignorance... But I disagree with the Minerva John's comment. While Shia Muslims commemoration of Ashura in Moharam is very commendable, despite the threat of terror they have kept on practicing their customary Jolus and Alam, etc. Every precautionary action is necessary for the safety and security of our minority communities in Pakistan. God bless Pakistan and its faithful and patriotic minority communities.
VINOD
Dec 25, 2011 12:00pm
WISHING MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL THE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN.IN INDIA THE GUSTO AND MERRY MAKING IS ALMOST SAME AS I SAW IN MY CHILDHOOD IN THE 40s. HOWEVER LOCAL DECORATIONS, INDIAN SWEETS. MOTHER MARY IN A SAREE AND SHEPHERDS IN INDIAN ATTIRES IS A COMMON SITE.TODAY POPULARITY OF CHRISTMAS HAS GONE BEYOND CHRISTIANS AND THIS IS EVIDENT FROM THE CROWDS THRONGING CHURCHES, AUTO RICKSHAWS PLYING WITH STICKERS " HUM INDIA SE PYAR KARTE HAI - MERRY CHRISTMAS." IT WAS INTERESTING TO SEE A SADHU IN HIS SAFFRON ATTIRE WITH "HAPPY CHRISTMAS" WRITTEN ON HIS FOREHEAD WITH CHANDAN.WITH SOARING POPULATIONS OF CHRISTIANS AND OTHER RELIGIONS EVERY FESTIVAL HAS BECOME A FESTIVAL TO BE CELEBRATED AND THE SURGING YOUTH LOVES IT. ONCE AGAIN MERRY CHRISTMAS AND MAY THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS PREVAIL.
SecularIndian
Dec 25, 2011 04:31pm
The whole Christmas scenario in India today is the opposite of what you report about in Pakistan. One has to see to believe the excitement and fervour that the whole country is going through right now, embracing the spirit of Christmas , in the streets, in shopping malls and by the media , with the people ( most of them Hindus ) wishing all other Indians and not just Christains, a Very Merry Christmas! this can only happen in a secular tolerant India of today. I'm so proud of my country , I fervently hope it will not go the fundamentalist way of Pakistan.
raika45
Dec 25, 2011 05:37pm
Islam is the official religion in Malaysia.Yet you should see how the other religions celebrate their religious days.It is done with joy and gusto.Everybody takes part.Our government and state bodies have open houses to celebrate all festivals throughout the country.Thousands attend them where there is food and music.Right now we the multitude of religions are enjoying Christmas and are looking forward to the Chinese new Year.It is a pity you have some inward looking people in your country to create trouble in the name of Islam.MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL.
suneel
Dec 25, 2011 09:13pm
Unfortunately, Mr Raika45, Malaysia is one of the most racially biased country in Asia. Your government NEW ECONOMIC POLICY that was introduced in 1970 is based on prejudice and racial discrimination of religious/racial minorities. May be you celebrate Xmas, but that does not make your country better.
Sakethram
Dec 26, 2011 02:35am
Am from Bangalore and am enjoying an awesome X'Mas here. THE MALL NEAR MY HOUSE HAS OPENED A SKATEING RING FOR THE OCCASION. Santa goes around giving small toys to kids and a Carol singing competition was going on today in the main lobby where people from all failths were competing for the top prize. Am greatly saddened to read the above article. Hope the world wakes up to a new year of Tolerance and rids itself of hate and Mistrust. And do hope the things in Pakistan settle down soon...A Stable and Strong Pakistan. Merry Christmas everyone and a Happy new YEAR... :) Regards from Bangalore.
Chittar
Dec 26, 2011 02:46am
Very sad to read this article. Being from Goa where 30% are Christian, I grew up with a lot of understanding of Christianity and also picked up a lot of cultural influences from the Christians. Intermarriages are not that uncommon and everyone (including Muslims) greet each other and not just the Christians with a "Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year". Even the local BJP and the Shiv Sena greet the Church. Likewise, Hindus, Christians, Muslims greet each other on the main festivals. So much fun! I feel the Islamic moderation of Sufis has been devastated thanks to the Americans, Russians,the Saudis and the Pakistani leadership. They have let these foreign forces creep into the Pakistani soils and corrupt the local moderate populace with their local fanatic ideas.
sunil gavaskar
Dec 26, 2011 05:16am
@secularindian its a shame you use an opportunity to bash pakistan. we should all be working together rathter than criticise our neighhours. its people like you who are causing much mischeif.
paul pakyam
Dec 27, 2011 01:08am
Jenny Marshallès rememberances are both poignant and sad.The Pakistan that she and I grew up and celebrated Christmas in, is a dream today.May peace and goodwill prevail and bring back the memories she warites about.
Nadeem Shah
Dec 27, 2011 10:45am
Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. _Albert Einstein
Nadem Shah
Dec 27, 2011 10:49am
Its the Pashtun and Afghan conservative Muslims, that along with the equally conservative urdu speaking Mohajirs in Karachi have contributed to the religious extremism.
Prince
Dec 27, 2011 04:21pm
I am a Muslim from Pakistan and I'd like to Wish all Christians of Pakistan a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Hope your families had a safe christmas and it gets better and better in the years to come.
Miki Morales
May 28, 2012 04:00am
well said. Partially correct. Two wrongs would not constitute a right.