Integrating Perspectives on Christmas

by Nadette Foley, Zhyan Sharif and Egide Dhala

Nadette: Christmas is a time for home coming. In many different parts of the world people make enormous efforts, and travel long distances, to spend Christmas-time with their families, even if only for a few days. But just as in the past thousands of the Irish people who emigrated to North America, Australia or Britain, had to spend their Christmases away from home, so also many of the people who have come to Ireland in recent years as migrant workers, as refugees and especially as asylum seekers, do not have the option of going home for Christmas. Returning may not be possible because they cannot afford the money, or the time, or if they leave they will not be re-admitted or the conditions in their home country make going back dangerous.

Ireland\’s new residents come from over one hundred countries in every continent. Our current level of resources and wealth mean we are able to offer them valuable opportunities – to rebuild their lives, to gain employment, to obtain training and qualifications. And they in turn have a great deal to offer Ireland – they bring talents and skills, initiative, resourcefulness, a willingness to work hard to create a new life for themselves and their families. They can give us insights into cultures different from our own, a view of how global forces operate, a picture of the wider world and Ireland\’s place in it. Provided we are willing to listen, they can also give us refreshingly different perspectives on life in this country. Coming as they do from different cultures, they see this country with fresh eyes and they can help us to look more searchingly at ourselves, to examine our values and re-assess what are the things to which we accord priority.

Their perspective is very often not just that of a person coming from a different part of the world to a strange country. Rather, it is that of someone who is vulnerable, lonely and perhaps traumatised, who is without financial resources and the knowledge and experience necessary to negotiate the administrative systems, or the workplaces, with which they must deal. It is also that of someone who has displayed great resilience, strength and courage in reaching this country. How they are treated, whether as an applicant for asylum or as a migrant worker, is a profound comment on our society.

\’Christmas\’ in the modern western – and secularised – world has become a season that occupies one sixth of the year and absorbs a sizeable proportion of our consumption. However we look on it and however we celebrate it there is no doubting its significance in our lives.

As we try to respond to the annual appeals to ‘think of others this Christmas’ we do well to consider how Christmas is experienced by our immigrant workers, the asylum seekers who await decisions about their future and the refugees for whom Ireland has provided safety and the chance of a new life.

Zhyan: I am from Kurdistan. I am married and have three Irish children, all born in Dublin. I left Kurdistan in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war and I have been nearly seventeen years living in Dublin. It has been a second home for me. Irish people are very friendly and helpful. My children and I like living in Dublin. My boys consider themselves Irish because they were born and grew up here and they speak only English and some Irish.
The only thing I do not like about Ireland is Christmas-time because the Irish people spend an awful lot of money in the run-up to the festival. It seems to me to be a very bad custom. I feel sorry for the poor people who cannot afford to spend. Like their Irish friends, my children have been asking for expensive gifts. I feel terrible because sometimes it is difficult for me to get them what they want.

I think Christmas should be about gathering families and being together, not about spending on and on. And Christmas should surely mean thinking about the poor and their needs. My opinion is that instead of spending all this money on presents and gifts, people could donate to those who are in need and send help to countries were there is war and starvation.From my experience of Irish friends, I know the pressure that is put on them. Some of them take loans to pay for the cost of Christmas.

At this time of year as a Muslim woman, I celebrate Eid and this does not put pressure on us. We do not have to spend money on gifts. We buy our children new clothes and inexpensive presents or give them some money. We visit families and friends It is all about the gathering.

In the morning of the first day of Eid, we go to the mosque and pray. For Muslims, Eid is about gathering with friends and families and also about bringing peace, and forgiving those who hurt us. A week before Eid we must give Zakat, a donation, for the people who are in need.

However, I do enjoy looking at the city with its Christmas lights and decorations. It breaks up the long dark Irish winter.

Egide: I am from the Congo. I have been in Ireland for five years – quite a long time away from my country. In my opinion, Christmas has departed from its original meaning for many. I would argue that for a great number of Irish people, and indeed in the general context of the modern western world, Christmas is a traditional feast rather than a celebration of the birth of the Saviour- perhaps an opportunity for gaining or spending a fortune! I am not surprised, however, since we are living in a very secularised world.

Reaching the end of the year, my mind goes back again to my native land where popular festivities bring a new dimension to life. Luckily, Christmas happens almost at the same time as the end of the year/beginning of a new year. Popular celebration starts from December 24th, by participation in religious ceremonies followed by a family meal, and continues until the end of January. The most important moment is the transitional time between the end of the year, 31st of December, and the beginning of the New Year, 1st of January. This marks a key moment where any African would bring the past and the future together, then try to offer it to ancestors who will make provision to the integrity of life at individual, family and community level.

Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated a week before, has taken the place of those ancestors as Spiritual Guardian. The deep sense of spirituality in the life of Africans finds echoes in the Christ-Event! The importance of his date of birth, not only a birthday but also a real birth, reaches its fullness in the night of passing over to the New Year. A special meal, usually a goat, is shared amongst family members in order to celebrate the joy of a New Year dawning. Meals are shared between families, children in their new clothes crowd the streets and music is played loudly in every house.

I will always be nostalgic when celebrating Christmas – “Good New Year” far away from home!