Farrukh Dhondy | Christmas is here It's a time for festivity, but a holy season too

The national census tells us that Christianity is in decline in Britain.

“O Bachchoo why do the birds protest

When twilight threatens the end of day

Do the cries announce going home to rest

Or fear of becoming the night-hawk’s prey?

Did primitive humans fear the dark

And dash to cave or forest glade

Did they clash rocks to make a spark

Is fear of light or darkness made?”

From Kalam Ki Boli, by Bachchoo

Ever since, in my short and happy life, I have spent the last months of each year in Britain, Christmas comes progressively earlier. No, gentle reader, I don’t mean that Jesus is born a day earlier each year. (The only festival which moves one day back relative to the Roman calendar every four years is the “New Year” that the Indian Parsis celebrate, because some idiot in the past forgot to count the extra day of the leap year!)

Christmas coming earlier means the public celebration starts earlier and this year in November celebratory lights, some in the shape of reindeer or stars, went up in and across the main shopping streets; and carols were played in the malls.

All supermarkets spend literally millions of pounds on Christmas advertisements on hoardings and TV and I’m told on social media as well.

I discovered that the order for a goose for Christmas dinner has to be placed in October as they, like cheap plane tickets in the school holidays., sell out, leaving non-vegetarian celebrants the option of a November-ordered turkey.

Christmas trees are now sold in November -- in schools, taxi-hire firms, DIY supermarkets and of course garden centres, parks, florists…

A friend of mine (or should I dishonestly maintain a distance by calling him “an Acquaintance”?) till last year, used to “sell” Christmas trees from the back of an open truck. He didn’t sell many and told me that wasn’t the point. The tree enterprise was a front for laundering money obtained from illegal activity, one of which was the sale of precious paintings stolen from stately homes. The money that he and associates garnered through theft was passed off as untraceable rich pickings from the sale of Christmas trees when they were questioned about buying posh cars or property.

You may have gathered, gentle reader, that Christmas in Britain is very largely devoted to commerce and festivity and not to the pious celebration of the birth of a saviour who declared that those who shopped at Waitrose wouldn’t inherit the earth.

And though I assert it, it’s not universally true. There are evangelical churches whose congregations, very largely immigrant generations from the Caribbean and Africa, take the holiness of Christmas seriously. These Christmas days are christened (sic!) the festive season or the holy season. I am sure the holywallahs are also given to festivity but doubt very much if the festivewallahs do anything holy.

The national census tells us that Christianity is in decline in Britain. Today 46.2 per cent of British citizens say they are Christians. The survey didn’t ask if they were merely “cultural Christians”, celebrating Christmas and Easter, singing hymns but not necessarily believing that Christ was the son of God or going diligently to church on the Sabbath.

One set of rigid exceptions are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who, incidentally, have their South London headquarters a few hundred yards from where I live. They have some peculiar beliefs, one of which is against blood transfusions even in life-threatening cases. Another, more serious, is a denial of anything that contradicts the Bible, such as Darwinism. They victimise those who leave the sect. All of it smacks of cultishness. In London, their membership is predominantly black families who set out in their “Sunday best” to convert their neighbourhoods.

Two of these holy people, a middle-aged gentleman and a lady, rang my doorbell. When I answered, the lady asked: “Sir, what do you think of Jesus?”

I unhesitatingly said: “Any person who can turn water into wine -- that’s my man!”

They turned away and left.

On another occasion, I encountered two of their younger female members, perhaps in their early twenties, at our local bus-stop -- just the three of us.

“Sir, may we speak to you?” one of them asked.

I said of course they could.

“Do you know the Bible?” she asked.

“Bits of it -- but do you know the Bible?” I answered.

They both said of course they did.

“OK, so in which and only book of the Bible are the three Magi mentioned?”

They looked at each other. They didn’t know the answer.

“In Matthew,” I said. “And what religion did the Magi follow?”

Again bewildered, puzzled looks. “Jewish?” one of them hesitatingly said.

“No, they were Zoroastrians.”

They obviously had never heard of Zoroastrians. I followed up.

“OK, an easy one: In which book of the Bible does it say “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…?”

Both of them immediately said: “Genesis!”

“Sorry, wrong. It’s not even in the Old Testament. It’s in the gospel of St. John.”

They looked confused. Then my bus came, and as I got on it I said: “Remember you heard it on the road to Damascus!”

I didn’t, alas, see their reaction.

And so, gentle readers, though it’s two days early: Merry Christmas!”

And even more prematurely, a Happy New Year… though I believe another column is due before. (Hope springs eternal? –Ed)

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