christmaslights

What is Christmas without Light?

The week, before Christmas, I was doing my shopping in the glorious bonanza of Trincity Mall, and I caught the Christmas spirit. As I say this, I know the response I will get.
“Glorious?” my mother will ask, one eyebrow raised.
“Bonanza?” my friends will ask in snide tones.
What they are implying goes without saying.
Malls are nothing more than the new cathedrals to crass commercialism. Christmas now is really Consume-mas! This season is an exercise in excess. Nowadays, every imaginable surface must be dripping with decorations and baubles. Fake evergreen wreaths must be on all walls and doors. Fake Christmas trees must be in every corner of every public venue! Santa hats. Santa sleighs. Christmas lights. Icicle lights. Multi-coloured lights. Christmas brooches. Santa Clauses. Gifts for every random acquaintance. The flimsiest of throwaway toys for the kids.
Never mind that the trees are fake, the snow is cotton-wool, we eh have snow, icicles, reindeer or chimneys for Santa to climb down, and we cyah wear no velvet, fur or boots in THIS weather! But if you say BOO to any ah dis yuh is a Scrooge! What Christmas spirit you talkin’ ’bout?
My North-American friends would add – “Please – you all think it’s better up here? Santa hats, suits, and Christmas paraphernalia just feed the machine of over-consumption and materialism. And don’t even get us started on the jarring crassness of those multi-coloured Christmas lights!”
No, none of this needs to be said, because I have said much the same myself. I agree with most of it too. Christmas has become more commercialized, and our own particular Trini ways of celebrating it are increasingly under threat of being overrun by imported Americana or the ever-earlier encroachment of Carnival.
But I can’t agree with EVERYTHING that’s said. For example, I can’t see lights as a bad thing. I associate festivity and celebration with light. How can I not, when I also celebrate Diwali – the festival of lights?
The lead-up to Diwali is much the same as to Christmas – the house must be scoured from top to bottom, the curtains changed, whatever little corners are scuffed and rusting must be buffed and re-painted, the more long-lasting ingredients for all the seasonal delicacies must be bought early and put aside until the real cooking starts.
Deyas are selected with deliberation – how many, what size, waxed or not? – cotton wicks rolled, bottles of coconut oil bought and stacked until it’s time to light up.
Along the edges and corners of the house lines of lights are draped, tacked and nailed. Then before you know it, your floors and house are gleaming, and it’s Diwali night.
You have your family prayers, stuff your face with food and sweats, and get ready to lay out the deyas. If they’ve been soaking for a few hours, drain them, line them with wick, fill with oil, and carefully light them. Pass them around to the rest of the family to lay them out on the driveway, bannisters, gateposts, brickwork, pillars, dirt, grass, and on any available surface. Brave little pools of light dance in the breeze, defying the darkness, suffusing you with a deep joy.
After your guests have eaten and drunk their fill, after you’ve tended your own deyas, filled them up with the last of the oil and replaced the burnt-out wicks, you go for a walk through the village. Up and down the street, along the edges of the road, deyas shine on bamboo arches, patterning the night. Your neighbours’ houses and yards are also dotted with twinkling lights, and some are outlined by radiant strands. Looking out over the flickering landscape, you see that each individual house is beautiful alone, but together their light transforms the night.
It’s no coincidence that many religions of the world celebrate major festivals in this season, and celebrate them with light.
Here in Trinidad, Diwali, Eid and Christmas fall one after the other. People like me, who have Hindu, Muslim and Christian family, and who, therefore, celebrate them ALL, walk around for the last two months of the year on a sugar-high.
For me, Christmas is waking up in the morning to eat freshly made coconut bake, ham, pastelles and chow-chow, going to my grandmother’s to open presents and eat more – baked chicken and stuffing, leg of lamb, fried rice, scalloped potatoes, deviled eggs, cauliflower in cream sauce, curry goat, curry duck, pumpkin, stuffed mushrooms, black cake and ice-cream. Then we all just loll around in a food coma amidst the wrapping paper, until my Uncle shows up with his cuatro, box-guitar and Parang side to finish off the evening with Daisy and dancing.
And, of course, Christmas is light – the lights on the Christmas tree, the garland decorating our staircase, the lights on the houses around us, or in the malls/stores/houses that my family visits in this very sociable season. And I don’t care if they’re red, green, neon, icicle or popsicle lights. I enjoy them all, and I find them very beautiful.
The beauty of Trinidad and Tobago lies in our capacity to appreciate and value all our traditions, and to focus on the commonalities that unite us, while celebrating the differences that enrich us. As with so much else in our country, our Christmas is beautiful not only because it celebrates the sanctity of this time of year.
Our traditional festivities also incorporate the many histories that have gone into making us a nation. We have Spanish ham, Parang and punch-à-creme, Amerindian pastelles, chow-chow, British-baked chicken, stout, stuffing, and I’m not even sure where the sorrel and gingerbeer come from.
For many people, the joy that starts at Diwali is channelled through to Christmas. Some people who decorate their houses with electric lights for Diwali leave them up until the New Year, even adding to them for Christmas. I have Muslim friends too who put up Christmas lights and decorate their houses.
Every holiday season, T&TEC constructs two conical Christmas-trees out of strung lights at the Monroe Road flyover, decorated with a deya, a crescent moon and star, and topped with a star.
Because what is Christmas without light?
From the Star of Bethlehem to the pillar of light, light in the darkness always guides us towards peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Whether we find it above a stable in Bethlehem, in Ayodha to welcome home Rama, or around our houses on festival nights, I believe that what is being celebrated is the same. Light over the darkness, knowledge over ignorance, peace over hostility, good over evil.
So yes, we need to be aware of the creeping threat of overcommercialising influences, but as with all things Trini, let’s not ignore our own penchant for incorporation. Don’t tell me anything when I sigh over the sparkle and twinkle in Trincity. And don’t get on my case about my multicoloured Christmas lights. They’ve been up since Diwali, and they’re staying up until Epiphany.

The week, before Christmas, I was doing my shopping in the glorious bonanza of Trincity Mall, and I caught the Christmas spirit. As I say this, I know the response I will get.

“Glorious?” my mother will ask, one eyebrow raised.

“Bonanza?” my friends will ask in snide tones.

What they are implying goes without saying.

Malls are nothing more than the new cathedrals to crass commercialism. Christmas now is really Consume-mas! This season is an exercise in excess. Nowadays, every imaginable surface must be dripping with decorations and baubles. Fake evergreen wreaths must be on all walls and doors.

Fake Christmas trees must be in every corner of every public venue! Santa hats. Santa sleighs. Christmas lights. Icicle lights. Multi-coloured lights. Christmas brooches. Santa Clauses. Gifts for every random acquaintance. The flimsiest of throwaway toys for the kids.

Never mind that the trees are fake, the snow is cotton-wool, we eh have snow, icicles, reindeer or chimneys for Santa to climb down, and we cyah wear no velvet, fur or boots in THIS weather! But if you say BOO to any ah dis yuh is a Scrooge! What Christmas spirit you talkin’ ’bout?

My North-American friends would add – “Please – you all think it’s better up here? Santa hats, suits, and Christmas paraphernalia just feed the machine of over-consumption and materialism. And don’t even get us started on the jarring crassness of those multi-coloured Christmas lights!”

No, none of this needs to be said, because I have said much the same myself. I agree with most of it too. Christmas has become more commercialized, and our own particular Trini ways of celebrating it are increasingly under threat of being overrun by imported Americana or the ever-earlier encroachment of Carnival.

But I can’t agree with EVERYTHING that’s said. For example, I can’t see lights as a bad thing. I associate festivity and celebration with light. How can I not, when I also celebrate Diwali – the festival of lights?

The lead-up to Diwali is much the same as to Christmas – the house must be scoured from top to bottom, the curtains changed, whatever little corners are scuffed and rusting must be buffed and re-painted, the more long-lasting ingredients for all the seasonal delicacies must be bought early and put aside until the real cooking starts.

Deyas are selected with deliberation – how many, what size, waxed or not? – cotton wicks rolled, bottles of coconut oil bought and stacked until it’s time to light up.

Along the edges and corners of the house lines of lights are draped, tacked and nailed. Then before you know it, your floors and house are gleaming, and it’s Diwali night.

You have your family prayers, stuff your face with food and sweats, and get ready to lay out the deyas. If they’ve been soaking for a few hours, drain them, line them with wick, fill with oil, and carefully light them. Pass them around to the rest of the family to lay them out on the driveway, bannisters, gateposts, brickwork, pillars, dirt, grass, and on any available surface. Brave little pools of light dance in the breeze, defying the darkness, suffusing you with a deep joy.

After your guests have eaten and drunk their fill, after you’ve tended your own deyas, filled them up with the last of the oil and replaced the burnt-out wicks, you go for a walk through the village. Up and down the street, along the edges of the road, deyas shine on bamboo arches, patterning the night. Your neighbours’ houses and yards are also dotted with twinkling lights, and some are outlined by radiant strands. Looking out over the flickering landscape, you see that each individual house is beautiful alone, but together their light transforms the night.

It’s no coincidence that many religions of the world celebrate major festivals in this season, and celebrate them with light.

Here in Trinidad, Diwali, Eid and Christmas fall one after the other. People like me, who have Hindu, Muslim and Christian family, and who, therefore, celebrate them ALL, walk around for the last two months of the year on a sugar high.

For me, Christmas is waking up in the morning to eat freshly made coconut bake, ham, pastelles and chow-chow, going to my grandmother’s to open presents and eat more – baked chicken and stuffing, leg of lamb, fried rice, scalloped potatoes, deviled eggs, cauliflower in cream sauce, curry goat, curry duck, pumpkin, stuffed mushrooms, black cake and ice-cream. Then we all just loll around in a food coma amidst the wrapping paper, until my Uncle shows up with his cuatro, box-guitar and Parang side to finish off the evening with Daisy and dancing.

And, of course, Christmas is light – the lights on the Christmas tree, the garland decorating our staircase, the lights on the houses around us, or in the malls/stores/houses that my family visits in this very sociable season. And I don’t care if they’re red, green, neon, icicle or popsicle lights. I enjoy them all, and I find them very beautiful.

The beauty of Trinidad and Tobago lies in our capacity to appreciate and value all our traditions, and to focus on the commonalities that unite us, while celebrating the differences that enrich us. As with so much else in our country, our Christmas is beautiful not only because it celebrates the sanctity of this time of year.

Our traditional festivities also incorporate the many histories that have gone into making us a nation. We have Spanish ham, Parang and punch-à-creme, Amerindian pastelles, chow-chow, British-baked chicken, stout, stuffing, and I’m not even sure where the sorrel and gingerbeer come from.

For many people, the joy that starts at Diwali is channelled through to Christmas. Some people who decorate their houses with electric lights for Diwali leave them up until the New Year, even adding to them for Christmas. I have Muslim friends too who put up Christmas lights and decorate their houses.

Every holiday season, T&TEC constructs two conical Christmas-trees out of strung lights at the Monroe Road flyover, decorated with a deya, a crescent moon and star, and topped with a star.

Because what is Christmas without light?

From the Star of Bethlehem to the pillar of light, light in the darkness always guides us towards peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Whether we find it above a stable in Bethlehem, in Ayodha to welcome home Rama, or around our houses on festival nights, I believe that what is being celebrated is the same. Light over the darkness, knowledge over ignorance, peace over hostility, good over evil.

So yes, we need to be aware of the creeping threat of overcommercialising influences, but as with all things Trini, let’s not ignore our own penchant for incorporation. Don’t tell me anything when I sigh over the sparkle and twinkle in Trincity. And don’t get on my case about my multicoloured Christmas lights. They’ve been up since Diwali, and they’re staying up until Epiphany.

 

Image: Chris_J via Flickr

 

Vishala ParmasadVishala Parmasad – has written 2 posts on this site.
Vishala Parmasad is an itinerant graduate student, currently doing a doctoral degree in anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. As a medical doctor and a patient advocate, she sees medical anthropology as expanding the horizons of what medicine means both personally and professionally. She’s also a compulsive writer about anything under the sun.

  • Richa

    Thanks for this reminder of exactly how good we have things in Trinidad. Diversity has always been God’s plan for the world and we need to remember that.