- Learning and unlearning
The cold English wind feels a degree warmer each day. It has become acceptable to smile at strangers to whom you’re not selling a cup of latte or an overpriced car rental. Urban England whose high-flying populace is far too busy to bother with petty niceties, has been bestowed a reason to be kind.
You don’t need to look at a calendar to know how many days you’ve got till Christmas, or how many days it’s been past 25th of December. You’ll know by the weight of leaflets piling up in your mailbox, advertising Christmas shopping deals. You’ll find painstakingly decorated trees staring at you from every second window you pass on your way to work; every second window, assuming that some belong to bathrooms and storerooms that are tragically not participating in the festivity. If you miss them, you’ll find carolers at the entrance of the hospital where you work, to remind you what time of the year it is.
There is no escaping the gravity of this holiday. As a Pakistani who admits some ignorance of Christmas traditions, but cultural anxiety mostly, I did not sign up for ‘Secret Santa’ or attend any Christmas dinners. As a well-known introvert, I did not lift a finger to contribute to the Christmas spirit beyond smiling a bit more frequently at fellow humans. Nevertheless, I received a giant stocking stuffed with presents from my coworkers, and a few Christmas cards that I greatly appreciate. What I appreciated even more, was the fact that my line manager casually ‘warned’ me earlier about Santa’s arrival, and asked whether the gift-giving might be perceived as being culturally insensitive. I laughed, assuring him that it wouldn’t.
Despite everything, Christmas can be a time of crushing loneliness. It’s important to note that these festivities all lead up to 25th December when all shops are closed, trains don’t run, and all cities and town virtually shut down
Despite everything, Christmas can be a time of crushing loneliness. It’s important to note that these festivities all lead up to 25th December when all shops are closed, trains don’t run, and all cities and town virtually shut down. Although people gather before and after Christmas to buy, sell, or exchange gifts, or to show off their red Christmas sweaters, the day of Christmas itself involves utter isolation. Traditionally, you do not share this day with anyone except your family. The population breaks away into tiny pockets, each celebrating Christmas in its own way, at its own leisure.
This is strikingly at odds with how Eid is celebrated in Pakistan, and speaks volumes about our cultural differences. Eid is too important to keep to yourself. Eid is celebrated not in closed living rooms, but out in the streets. We bathe ourselves, put on nice clothes, and douse ourselves in perfumes or perfumed oils, because bodily contact with strangers is inescapable. At the mosque, you don’t wish each other a merry eid, you say it with a warm hug. Yes, three times. Yes, you have to. “Personal space” is a western construct.
On Eid day, the public spaces often remain open. People go out with their families. They don’t dress up by accident; they expect to be seen by friends, strangers, and distant relatives.
South Asian culture rejects privacy. Privacy is important, but what is often mistaken for respecting someone’s privacy is an exercise in breaking masses into individuals. Neoliberalism promotes isolationism. It overvalues solitude. It teaches you that you mustn’t speak to another solo traveler on a train, because he doesn’t want be bothered by human interaction.
This an idea that has tainted Christmas. Sweep up as many gifts as you can, and then retreat to your properties to enjoy them privately. This is not a day for the streets; it’s a private party and the community is not invited. Why would it be? You get a precious few days a year when you’re not expected to go to your office and make money for the upper class; why would you waste it on some lonely stranger at the bus stop rather than with your husband and kids?
Gifts are great. But we owe one another more than chocolates and sweaters. We owe them a ‘hello’. We owe them an intrusion. We do not need a holiday that is publicly prepared and privately consumed, like a model for everything else in the world.
There is much Pakistanis can learn from the west. But there is much that the west must unlearn, refusing to accept loneliness as an unavoidable consequence of life. In a world approaching seven billion humans, loneliness does not come naturally; they must be indoctrinated to block each other out.