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The Deeper Meaning Of Christmas

From a secular angle, the festive season should be a stimulus for genuine reflection and real transformation in all of us
Dec 23, 2017 5:50 AM

WHAT DOES CHRISTMAS MEAN in 21st century Singapore? I am not talking about its significance to Christians, important as that is, but about its place in the secular calendar. A potted history of Christmas tells us that Christmas was first celebrated in the fourth century of the Common Era, and that there was an association of the date of Jesus Christ's birth with the winter equinox in the northern hemisphere, when the days stop shortening and start lengthening.

As anyone who has endured a long winter knows, this is a time of year imbued with hope that light will triumph over darkness, a sentiment that lifts the mood and is itself a reason for festivity. More specific association with the Feast of St Nicholas gave us the universal and, in Christian terms, theologically unsound Santa Claus, with his toy workshop run by elves and a delivery system of flying reindeer.

Gift-giving marks many festivals, but for Christmas it has become a defining feature. Sociologists will remind us of the critical function that gift-giving plays in society, and Christmas socialises children not just by their receiving presents but because they give them too, including through programmes run very well by schools or churches

As a child, every year I would have to give a toy or game to the paediatrics ward at Singapore General Hospital, which was run by a relative, Dr Freda Paul. Visiting during the year after giving a toy I was particularly fond of (a Tonka dump truck that snugly fitted six yellow blocks into the blue bed of the truck and had a working tailgate), I learned my first lesson in letting go.

While thankfully Santa Claus predates trademarks, and hence merchandising, his commercial value to retailers the world over is second to none. Despite our location in the tropics, Orchard Road has its annual makeover into a winter wonderland, complete with snow machines and seasonal lattes.

Thus, the short answer to my question is, like almost everywhere else, Christmas for Singapore is a time of suspended disbelief, frenzied shopping and alcohol-loosened inhibitions at office parties. One could, also, dwell on the "life is elsewhere" aspect of much of how we celebrate Christmas. It would be obvious enough to bemoan all the Northern European trappings, where even the desert setting for nativity scenes is undercut by the improbably pallid protagonists, and lament the absence of a localised tropical tradition.

But I would like to write instead about a different aspect of Christmas, an aspect that has spread beyond its Christian origins, and was particularly given force and shape by Charles Dickens, in his A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843. In the now-familiar story, Scrooge (which has itself entered the language as a synonym for miser) begins the story as a man consumed by self-interest, paying his employee, Bob Cratchit, with all correctness and exactitude their duly bargained wage, but lacking compassion and curiosity for the lives of others. Visited in turn by his former business partner, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Scrooge is led on a path of transformation, waking after a troubled night and starting his new life by dispatching anonymously a large turkey to Cratchit's home for his family's Christmas lunch.

There is, of course, a strong Christian backbone to the story, but Dickens did not explicitly connect Scrooge's change to any new-found belief in or path toward God. It is not a pilgrim's progress. Rather, Scrooge's transformation has three principal stimuli. The first is his reconnection to his boyhood, led by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Childhood is a time of innocence, when all paths are possible, and Scrooge is confronted with how he closed off the possibility of love by his obsession with accumulation.

Money is a false bulwark against the passage of time, and the second impetus for change comes when he witnesses (with the Ghost of Christmas Present) a very different response to mortality, in the person of Cratchit's terminally ill son, Tiny Tim, who is both cheerful and cares for others. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him that a purposeless life leads to a forgotten death, by taking him to observe his own funeral, where he is unmourned.

It is important to appreciate how different this is from the three resolutions traditionally made at New Year. All one needs to do to make a resolution is to recite it. Living up to it is a different matter. Scrooge's transformation is genuine because it comes from an internal struggle, starting with clarity of perception, recognition of the consequences of his own choices and immediate positive steps taken to manifest the inward change.

This past year, I had the privilege of helping to support an initiative called Lifting Dreams which sponsored eight young athletes to attend the World FINA Championships in Budapest, Hungary. The athletes were chosen for this because they themselves had shown fortitude in overcoming obstacles in their own lives, and, coming from lower income backgrounds, had never had the opportunity to travel. During the trip they watched swimmer Joseph Schooling in action, and then had the opportunity to meet and talk to him. Inspiration has a ripple effect. Inspired by the opportunity, and Schooling's example, each of the eight today continue to inspire others in their own, smaller circles.

Similarly, the transformation of Scrooge would in turn transform the lives of others.

The theme of my essay is the meaning of Christmas for 21st century Singapore. If it has a meaning for Singapore, other than just a religious celebration for one religious community, then that would, as I have hinted, have to be a meaning that is not strictly Christian. This is because Singapore is and must be a multicultural and multi-religious society, with a core value of interfaith understanding and acceptance. Of course, I am not suggesting that people of faiths other than Christianity should celebrate Christmas as a religious festival or as a secular holiday. What I am seeking to tease out is the positive meaning that Christmas holds that is not limited to Christians.

Recently, an Irish Catholic priest proposed that Christians give up the name Christmas, because in his view Christmas has been hijacked by "Santa and reindeer", and generally debased by commercialisation. That is one response to what I gave earlier as the short answer to the question. A commercialised Christmas has no real meaning. But there is also the meaning that Christmas offers, not just in its origins but in the way it was adapted by Dickens, as a time for individual reflection not just on habits or three or more things to do or stop doing but on character and purpose. It is that deeper and more difficult form of reflection that the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future stimulated in Scrooge.

Singapore already has a festival of national reflection. Naturally enough, that is our National Day, when we discuss where we have come from, where we are and where we are going as a nation. August is the time of year dominated by this discussion. It does not mean that we do not contemplate national questions at other times of year. It is just that even in tropical Singapore, life has its seasons, and humans move to their rhythm.

Christmas, in a non-religious way, heralds a season of individual reflection and contemplation. This offers the possibility for Singaporeans not just to enjoy the artificial snow storms of Orchard Road, the ho-ho-ho-ing of office parties or the giving and receiving of impractical trinkets wrapped in too much paper and too many ribbons, but also to reflect on purpose in their lives, and to consider how in the year following we can individually be kinder and more compassionate, and make choices as a society about how we can be more caring together.

In business, we also should take the opportunity this time of year offers, to reflect not simply on business strategy for the next year but also on the values in and purpose of our business. Leaders study, define and reveal the purpose of their organisations and businesses as part of driving the organisation forward, and motivating everyone to give their best. How organisations and businesses contribute to the lives of others is critical, not only in terms of corporate social responsibility programmes or staff welfare, although these are important, but also in their core missions. It is this strong sense of purpose that distinguishes the most successful organisations. In uncertain times, such as 2017 has been and 2018 promises to be, shared purpose holds organisations together and drives them forward.

For myself as managing partner of Dentons Rodyk, December is a time when I work through the appraisals of each and every member of the firm, more than 400 individuals in all. In doing so, I reflect on how to stimulate the changes needed for each person to reach their full potential as professionals and support staff within our law firm. At the same time, I reflect on myself, treating the appraisal interviews I conduct as a catalyst for my own contemplation, change and action.

In this way, while on the one hand I do not neglect to partake of goose or turkey, and drink some champagne, and on the other make more time than I usually manage to do for religious observance, I also practise what I have described as the deeper secular meaning of the Christmas season, as a stimulus for genuine reflection and real transformation.

Philip Jeyaretnam is a Senior Counsel, Global Vice Chair and Regional CEO of Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP. He is also a published novelist  and award-winning writer, whose works include First Loves, Raffles Place Ragtime and Abraham's Promise