Festivals of austerity

NS Christmas - Muslims fast and Hindus walk. Only Christians gorge themselves

I blame the three wise men. These guys from the east came bearing gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, stuff fit for a king. They established a tradition of giving presents at Christmas. As a result, children have been turned into surrogate princes and princesses to be overindulged with the best that adults can afford. And because all adults are merely overgrown children at heart, they decided to get in on the act and demand presents of their own, and a feast of abandoned indulgence to boot.

So the celebration of the birth of a prophet famed for throwing the money changers out of the temple of worship has become the occasion for a global outpouring of homage to unmitigated consumerism. How did the money changers take over the temple and become the altar of our adoration? What has gone wrong with Christmas?

It's about time we rescinded the learned credentials of those guys who followed the star. Our wise men should have known that in the east, gifts given during religious festivals are symbolic rather than real.

Take Chinese New Year. The whole concept is built around wishing people good fortune for the coming year. Gifts given and received consist of mandarin oranges, paper or tin formed into representations of bars of gold, or mass-produced ceramic statues of the guardians of the new year. True, Chinese children collect lots of little red packets with gifts of money in them, but it would be the height of impoliteness to open these packets in public, in case the smallness of the amount should prove to be a disappointment. However, the greatest difference is the basic premise that one should settle all one's debts before the arrival of the new year, rather than rack up as much debt as possible - which seems to be the prime directive where Christmas is concerned.

Though everyone likes a festival and having another excuse to hold a celebration, religious festivals in the east are primarily religious festivals. That means you have to earn the right to celebrate by serious spiritual effort. In Muslim countries, Eid ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, is the great celebration of the year. But participation requires a whole month of fasting; and you cannot celebrate unless you go for that special, congregational Eid prayer. And then the celebration actually consists of feeding the poor and handing out dollops of cash to the needy.

The Hindu festival of Thaipusam, the feast for the son of Shiva, Lord Subramaniam, requires even more rigorous spiritual exercises. Subramaniam is the universal granter of wishes. But all those who ask him for a favour, or seek to repent of their past sins, must fulfil a vow in return. So they fast, walk for miles, carry heavy burdens, and some, in a state of spiritual trance, pierce their bodies. Then, they celebrate by giving to charity.

The business end of eastern festivals appears at the event itself. People don't stay at home on Eid or Chinese New Year or Deepavali - the Hindu festival of light. They go out shopping. And the shopping is contained in time and is limited to the specific day(s) of celebration.

I have watched and participated in Eid, Chinese New Year, Thaipusam, Deepavali and Wesak Day (the Buddha's birthday), all while living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Each festival is publicly recognised and the shops are decorated for each occasion, but each holiday is different.

During Eid, for example, the emphasis is on meeting people. Families will ensure that everyone has a new set of clothes, colour co-ordinated. The most common gift is home-made biscuits. Everyone takes an elegant box of sweets to everyone they visit, and it is considered proper to try to visit everyone you know during Eid and the days following. Yet it is not just about people you know. The practice is to hold an "open house" so people you don't know can come, too. During one Eid in Kuala Lumpur, I remember well, I kept opening the door to people I had never met and never invited. They walked in, made themselves at home, ate whatever they could and left, never to be seen again.

For Wesak Day the emphasis shifts to austerity. The city is enveloped in candle-lit lanterns, made of bamboo and covered with transparent, coloured paper. Most shops sell lanterns, candles and papers of all imaginable variety and colour. The devout, clad in pure white and without make-up or jewellery, make their way to the temples, where they spend 24 hours in quiet contemplation. No solid food is taken after the midday meal, and all the energies are directed towards emptying the body of impure habits and the mind of impure thoughts.

Chinese New Year brings the invasion of crates of mandarin oranges and plastic buckets piled with food and the inevitable bottle of brandy, all gorgeously wrapped in cellophane - these being the staples of gift-giving. Huge Chinese dragons appear throughout town. Most goods in the shops are fake gifts, intended to indicate goodwill without breaking the bank.

The festivals of the east are about individual and social spirituality, community and belonging. In contrast, apart from the odd Mass, which few people attend, Christmas is drained of any notion of the sacred. No wonder it has been reduced to naked consumerism and selfish individualism.

Perhaps it is not the fault of the three wise men after all. Maybe their gold, frankincense and myrrh were fakes - or at least symbolic - and the whole idea was taken far too literally. Symbolism is something that the poor of the world, the majority, understand intrinsically. Poverty is the great inspirer of symbolism. What you cannot afford can nevertheless be indicated, intimated and shared around by non-literal and non-material means.

A pity that those celebrating Christmas have forgotten this basic fact.