Skulls hang around the neck of the goddess of the city, and the blade in her hand is fresh from a rampage of killing. You see her everywhere around this time. Makeshift idols of varying size and quality, mounted on the backs of trucks and in hand-drawn carts are followed through Kolkata’s streets night after night in November, throngs and ecstatic devotees to a goddess inextricably linked to death and violence dancing to a deafening chorus of beaten drums and less traditional dance music.
Worship pujas like these are hard to avoid in India’s province of West Bengal during Diwali. Local Christians try to ignore the phenomenon, often risking social isolation and worse by refusing to contribute to the costs of the local expressions of a ubiquitous celebration of a spirituality that is not their own. Even where there is no pressure to participate, even when Kali’s image is transposed from more serious religious contexts to advertising banners outside India’s blossoming posh shopping malls, monotheists and atheists alike are in no doubt as to the local zeitgeist: this is Kali’s city, this is Kali’s season.
As a good Western Protestant, confident in Christ’s sovereignty and comfortable in the knowledge that no number of statues and images can frighten the Holy Spirit out of me, I still found it unsettling.
Atheists, agnostics and, indeed, worshipers of Kali and Hinduism’s many other expressions of the divine may not experience the same level of discomfort with Christmas as it is celebrated in the UK – I couldn’t really say. But the experience must be similar – and similarly odd. A belief system to which you don’t subscribe becomes, for a season, utterly inescapable. Even people and places that exhibit no particular Christian fervour the rest of the year are caught up in an ecstasy of consumption, celebration and what to an outsider might look a lot like worship. It must be alienating for anyone with even the slightest strength of opinion on matters religious. And yet, all over our carol-singing, nativity referencing, special-dinner having country, Christians grumble about our faith being under pressure and, occasionally, ‘attack’.
How foolish we must look, how selfish and ungrateful, to those who find the celebration of a religious idea that conflicts with their own beliefs unsettling or irritating. Like Kali worshipers in India complaining about the sale of Christmas decorations, or of growing numbers of Christians in their communities refusing to participate in the harmless fun and ruining it for everyone else. Our celebration alters the working year, dominates broadcasting, advertising, children’s expectations and the food we likely eat for months, and we Christians complain that not enough of the content of our faith is included in the all-pervading cultural celebration.
Occasionally, we are right. An overzealous council or school gets rid of a harmless cultural celebration with roots in our faith or bans its explicit expression. This may be sad for our enjoyment and aesthetic expectations. It may be bad news for evangelism. But we’re hardly hard done by. And, let’s be honest, if we are relying on festivals like Christmas to do the heavy lifting of mission and evangelism in our culture, our Church is probably (and rightly) doomed to extinction.
It’s still called Christmas. Santa and ‘season’s greetings’ don’t stop us sharing our faith personally or celebrating the birth of our saviour at a time that handily fits in with much older traditions and obliterates their religious meaning. Christmas is safe. It’s message still, inexplicably, finds its way into the post-Christian mainstream more than it probably has a right to demographically. For this we should be grateful.
If one of the messages we draw from the nativity story is the importance of gratitude for the good gifts of God and of good will to all humanity, perhaps we can apply some of that gratitude and good will to Christmas itself? Perhaps we can not freak out if Christ is replaced by an X when written by people who have no relationship with him. Perhaps we can recognise how easy it is for us in our culture, rather than grumbling like Israelites in the desert that it used to be so much better. Perhaps we can admit that a certain amount of laurel-resting is inherent in the attitude that expects unbelievers to joyfully participate in the proclamation of one faith’s origin story.
Perhaps, at Christmas, that most childlike of celebrations, we could grow up?
(image via CreationSwap)