On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Reason for the season

Somehow, the significance of Dec 25 to the Christian community continues to elude many in our beautifully plural society.

CHRISTMAS Day may be over, but we should still be talking about this special occasion since the world is still celebrating the festive season. As a matter of fact, the Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe annually celebrate Christmas Day on or around Jan 7.

There’s nothing in the Bible that states Jesus was born on Dec 25. However, the date was recorded as a day of celebration in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

The Orthodox date works on the Julian calendar, named as such because it was proposed by Roman leader Julius Caesar. It predates the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, which is what’s used in most of the world.

But date aside, Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ. It’s not about Santa Claus, a decorated tree or exchanging gifts, but instead, purely about Jesus Christ.

It’s about his redemptive heart, of forgiveness and healing, loving and giving, the fulfilment touch and that God has come. That explains the season.

Christmas has, of course, become more secular and commercialised. It has now become a year-end holiday season. An Internet search of Christmas shows the appearance of Santa Claus in greater numbers than Christ himself. For many non-Christians, there is no religious significance.

No one will have their faith compromised by wishing someone Merry Christmas or even seeing a cake with that message displayed on the gateau.

Certainly, it’s not about whether wishing a Christian “Merry Christmas” is religiously acceptable or if selling cakes with the Christmas message jeopardises halal certification status.

Malaysians shouldn’t let these silly distractions affect their celebrations and the central message of the auspicious occasion. There will always be some looney, or groups of them, looking for attention and this time, PAS, with its newfound political power, seems to have gained a much louder voice.

But PAS has been consistent with such pronouncements, although it readily bends its rules and beliefs when it suits the party’s political gains.

So let’s not get overly upset. It’s just catering to its audience, who believe anything and everything their political/religious idols tell them.

It’s no different from the hardcore Donald Trump supporters in evangelical churches in the mid-west of the United States.

But here are the facts. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew in the Bible, although the date is not revealed.

Bethlehem is in Israel, but it’s administered by Palestinian authority. It’s a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

Basically, this is a huge Muslim town. Many biblical sites are found in towns which are predominantly Palestinian.

There are, indeed, many holy sites which are significant to both Muslims and Christians. And Christmas is celebrated in a huge way by the people there, both Christians and Muslims. Muslims make up over 50% of the population in Bethlehem.

Most of the Palestinians depend on Christian pilgrims and tourists for their living because they sell Christian religious and commemorative items.

No eyebrows are raised or debates sparked if people wish each other Merry Christmas in Palestine.

And Palestinian leaders have traditionally attended services at the Church of the Nativity, the site of the manger where Jesus is said to have been born.

It’s regarded as the world’s oldest continuously operating church, and inside the church is a grotto, a cramped, candle-lit nook said to be the spot where Jesus was born.

My knowledge isn’t Google-generated but firsthand because I’ve been to Jerusalem and other biblical sites as a Christian pilgrim.

I’ve spoken with many Palestinians, including Muslims, about their way of life, their frustrations and anger against the Israeli government.

The West Bank is a tiny but heavily populated area, and the people can’t possibly have the time to channel their energy towards meaningless polemics.

Here’s another gem: a Muslim family has been protecting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many believe Jesus Christ was crucified and entombed.

The church is one of Christianity’s holiest sites, and many Christian denominations share this holy space for prayer. Thousands of people from all over the world make the pilgrimage there for the Easter holidays.

Few of these visitors are aware that the Joudeh family has held the keys to the church for generations, dating back to 1517.

The task fell to Joudeh’s ancestors as a way of maintaining a neutral guardian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, since the church is split between multiple Christian denominations, including Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Franciscans.

This agreement between Joudeh’s Muslim ancestors and the Christians has helped build and maintain cooperation among the religions.

In a nutshell, instead of annually talking about the propriety of wishes, I’m glad most of my Muslim friends and relatives have simply ignored the whining of the minority.

The King, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah, also joined in wishing Christians a Merry Christmas, together with the Rulers of Selangor and Johor, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah and Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar.

The Ruler of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, has also consistently spoken up with his well-crafted messages on various issues affecting the people.

The messages of these senior Rulers are important because they are the true custodians of Islam and heads of Muslims in this country.

It’s also reassuring to the non-Muslim communities who are increasingly feeling insecure in the face of the actions and statements of some politicians and even civil servants, who possess the clout and authority to make decisions which affect many of us.

By applying pressure on non-Muslims to refrain from organising beauty contests and the like, they make many of us wonder where moderate Malaysia is headed.

And let’s not forget about a PAS MP grudgingly apologising for his claim of a distorted Bible.

In the warped minds of these PAS politicians, every celebration must be “hedonistic”. That means engaging in sensually pleasurable experiences, and in most cases, portrayed by the proverbial party and the prerequisite booze and drugs.

They simply love this word, and who knows why. Too many Netflix movies, perhaps?

At a time when we’re struggling with shrinking incomes, a faltering economy, a weak government and a raging pandemic, it’s incredulous that some of us can still find the time and energy for frivolous issues.

In the absence of many politicians unwilling to speak up against zealots who push unreasonable political tones because of political expediency, we can only count on our Rulers to speak up for most of us.

Daulat Tuanku! Merry Christmas to all Christians and a Happy New Year to all.