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Christmas in Pakistan – how it once was

December 24, 2011

“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