Christmas Celebrations in Pandemic: Welcome Changes

A Christmas story by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen speaks of the value of compassion and hope. Titled, The Little Match Girl, the story revolves around a poor girl who makes a living by selling matchsticks on a cold morning. When she fails to sell any, she takes refuge in an alley and keeps herself warm by lighting the matchsticks one by one. In the flame of each matchstick, she sees warmth, family and a Christmas tree. Each vision disappears once the flame dies out. When she gets a vision of her late grandmother, she lights the remaining bundle of matches to keep her alive.

While this story ends in tragedy, there is a certain beauty to it. We are perhaps, more than ever, in the need of compassion and hope at the fag-end of 2020, a year of changes. We have adapted to lockdown-induced protocols throughout the year – festivals were no different.

One wonders how Christmas is going to be this year. Sunday Shillong met leaders of a few churches to get an idea.

Adapting to Changes

Fr John Madur, church leader of the Shillong Archdiocese, spoke of the protocols in place this year. People can go for prayer services in the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians in limited numbers. About 400 people will be allowed this year. The midnight mass – advanced by a few hours this time – and other Christmas masses will be celebrated in the Cathedral too and no night curfew will be imposed on December 24.

Shillong looks beautiful during Christmas with people busy in shopping, the different churches and cathedrals lit up and cake shops doing a roaring business as families, children in particular, look forward to eating out. Usually, Christmas carol processions keep our spirits up. This year will be different. While processions are not allowed, people will sing in the church complexes.

About the spirit of Christmas this year, Fr Madur said the “pandemic has taught us all to go back to our roots and the basic philosophy” of the festival. Christmas, he said, is the worship of the child Jesus. Christ and his mass form the basis of Christmas in the Catholic tradition.

One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic, according to him, is the realisation that shopping, lighting up of the church and decorating the Christmas tree are all peripheral. Christmas can be celebrated without the external gaiety and that makes Christmas different and meaningful this year. He stressed on the importance of being sober as we spend time with God on Christmas.

Fr Madur said the passage from the Bible on shepherds gathering to worship Christ, resonates with him. “This has a universal appeal because we are all shepherds and Christmas is paying homage to the Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is the time to be good and to extend our hands to help each other. In addition, spiritual work should be our focus,” he said.

One of the key themes of Christmas 2020 is simplicity. Fr. Pius Shadap of the Shillong Archdiocese said.

Priests will be celebrating mass in different villages. Fr. Shadap will be visiting a village in Mawki-Syiem, beyond Cherrapunjee. This is not new; people of five-six villages have been coming together to listen to the message of the Gospel. Because of the protocols, priests have been assigned a few villages.

The Glass is Half Full

For Fr. Shadap, the participation of people has been a positive aspect of the pandemic. “Earlier, people would hardly come for the prayer services. But this year, families have come together as online prayers were held,” he said, adding that his message for the people of Shillong and the world at large was to spread hope, joy and light.

“This was the mission that brought Jesus to this world at a time when the Jewish people were being persecuted by the Roman Empire for 300 years. That St Paul who once persecuted Christians was himself persecuted when he got a divine vision, shows us only love and humanity remains at the end of the day,” he said.

Christmas 2020, according to him, should be a period of deep introspection and hope. All the church denominations are working closely together to celebrate Christmas in a meaningful manner to embody the principles of compassion, he said.

Among the Catholics, Christmas starts with the Novena Christmas or the Nine Days’ Preparations. Commencing from December 16, prayer services are held every evening till December 25. Denominations such as the Orthodox Church and Armenian Church celebrate Christmas from January 6 and January 17-19 respectively.

Emerging from Darkness

Christian lore speaks of darkness and how Jesus Christ came to the world to spread light. In the context of the pandemic, Christmas becomes even more significant, said Rev Himangshu Christian, leader of the Church of North India in Shillong. Since 2020 has been a year of suffering and uncertainty, he feels we must be hopeful. “No matter what, we must remember why the Lord came to this world – for us, for love and peace. To rejoice in suffering is an important lesson this year as it builds perseverance, character and hope,” he said.

The reverend narrated the sequence of the protocol-compliant festivity. The Festival of Nine Lessons on December 20 will be followed by the singing of Christmas carols. Started in 1918 by a pastor in King’s College, England, nine Bible passages will be read out, accompanied by hymns. Online prayer services will be held as well. On December 24, watch night services will be held at 11 pm.

“Even though we are in the midst of the pandemic, we should continue to spread the light of Christ and the love of God,” he said.

Festive Spirit

Christmas is incomplete without the community. While there are restrictions on community feast and gatherings, we can still celebrate the festival with our family and invite our neighbours. For Rev Edwin Kharkongor, leader of the Presbyterian Church, 2020 has been a year of the family where people came together for prayer services.

“Children wait for this time of the year eagerly and they have been deprived throughout this year. Discussions are on with the authorities if they can be allowed for Christmas functions under supervision. Special one-hour programmes or activities can be organised by different Christian groups. The elderly community has been hit too as they are unable to venture out and if something can be arranged for them, Christmas will be complete,” he said.

On December 20, the Shillong Khasi Jaintia Church Leaders Forum will be holding a united Christmas programme that will be telecast in the evening on the local channels. Leaders from different churches and three-four singing groups will participate in the one-hour programme in Khasi with interjections in English. A Christmas message will be given to remind people of the values of hope, peace, compassion and welcoming newness in life.

To Remember, Going Forward

Matthew 1:23 – Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Immanuel. Translated this means, “God is with us”.

To hope for a better 2021 is what Christmas is all about in 2020.

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