The first time I saw fireworks light up the dark sky on the eve of Christmas, I thought the angels had turned on the lights in heaven. How it shot into the sky in one piece and scattered into colourful embers after a blast got me singing, ‘wow…wow…wow…’ like an ambulance; the door of my mouth wide open like I was waiting to gulp the ashes. I had barely clocked four then, but I could talk more than a bellicose old woman cheated out of her share of snuff. My grandmother remains the most garrulous person I’ve ever met, and after her demise, dad was afraid that she had reincarnated life into the body of an innocent, little girl—that’s me. I talked a lot; not too much though, but I would talk myself into trouble and talk my way out of it.
Christmas always reminds us that God is good. As kids then, two extra lumps of meat in addition to the regular skinny one and more food for my brother and I, to commemorate the birth of the Lord were irrefutable evidence. Exchange of gifts by the neighbours, a mini end-of-year party in our compound, dancing, and jumping like an inflated leather ball made it for me. And not to forget the 7:00 am Christmas mass.
As children, we were taught that God lives in heaven, but when we asked to visit Him in heaven, they’d tell us He has moved to our hearts. Every Sunday, Reverend Marcel’s eyes pierce through the tall, vaulted ceiling into heaven every time he prays to the God in heaven. He would touch his forehead with the tips of his bundled right fingers, touch his shoulders—the right before the left, clasp his hands like a praying mantis, and ends his prayer with ‘in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’.
The church always replies a loud ‘Amen’.
Our church services always dismiss after that!
After the benediction, my kid-brother, Jude, and I would be looking for each other like our missing school socks, and later congregate at the church’s parking lot to go home in Dad’s car.
I grew up with the feeling that Christmas is the best part of the year; no wonder it is saved for the last month of the year. The little colourful lights in our house, the old Christmas now left with a bare iron trunk, splendid decoration with ribbons and greetings cards, and a Santa Claus mannequin waving at nothing were enough costumes for our little home.
Mom and Dad loved Silent Night carol; they were quiet people anyway. For me, Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano was the second greatest song on earth after Handel’s Hallelujah chorus. Whenever I played it on the home theatre with the volume hitting the crescendo, Dad and mom yelled at me from their room, ‘Cecil, lower the volume of that music!’ Unbeknownst to them, their voices were louder than the music.
‘Play Silent Night instead!’ Dad would say.
I sighed, but soft enough to be heard by no one. Silent Night has a misfit tempo, I thought. It sounded like one of the anthems for graveside procession.
‘For crying out loud, it’s the Lord’s birthday and we should be jolly, not playing a song that tells everyone to be silent’.
I’d play it for them anyway.
Later in the evening, the neighbours would come around to our compound to share gifts and stories to reverence their faith, eat, and party.
‘Merry Christmas to you’.
‘Merry Christmas to you too’.
Greetings would fly from left to right like pieces of scalar quantities. Children were allowed to play around the yard, and everywhere was noised with fun and excitement. Mr Jimmy was always the perfect Santa Claus—a fat, pot-bellied man, almost as fair as an albino. His would share gifts to everyone and later preach to everyone and call people to give to surrender their lives to Christ. But that, I found so awkward.
From four years old until I turned nineteen, there was no year Mr Jimmy did not preach at the neighbourhood Christmas party, and I have witnessed his few words of preaching bring people to surrender their lives to Christ. My face would usually condense into a rock, and I think he noticed it.
‘For crying out loud, this is a Christmas party, not some crusade’. The words were always trapped within the walls of my mouth.
‘Today in history, our Lord was born’, Mr Jimmy would say. ‘He came to save us because He loves us. And the only people worthy to celebrate Christmas are those rejoice in the hope of his coming, and salvation through his death, and resurrection’.
This is always the point where people plunge into deep thoughts, and I wonder if they were probing their salvation. Mine was to observe all the reaction and comment. I would say to myself, ‘For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son to die for us, and His only begotten son agreed to die for us, so why the fuss? Jesus chose to die and I appreciate that, and it’s enough that the whole world celebrates Him twice a year—His birth at Christmas; His death and resurrection at Easter. So, can we move on with our lives without this sermon?’
I had not known what it means for one to leave a palace of endless glory to be born in a manger. I had not known what it means to sacrifice for another; what it meant to go through such magnitude of torture and reproach for people who’d not appreciate it, or to know what it means to lay down one’s life for another with nothing in return.
Thanks to Christ; He did well!
It was on a cold Tuesday evening and eve of Christmas. Dad and I had rushed out to get provision for the house from Oasis Shopping Mall, not far from home. We bought enough to fill our shopping cart and stepped out to the car, excitement turning me on like a trigger-happy cop.
Christmas carol blared from two big speakers at the entrance of the mall and passers-by shook their heads and swaying rhythmically to the music. I could smell and feel Christmas everywhere, even in the humid breeze growing into a night fog.
‘Tomorrow is Christmas!’ I screamed, throwing my hands in the air.
Dad looked at me and smiled. Christmas must be the only reason he did not ask if I had lost my mind to act that way. After offloading the cart into the car boot, dad gave the attendant who helped us with a few banknotes and said, ‘Merry Christmas!’
‘Merry Christmas to you too, Sir’. The attendant obliged to dad’s goodness, thanked him and waved at us as we drove off. As soon as we drove to the exit gate, there was a strange rush everywhere; cars had grown wings and begun to fly, people doubled up with four legs into different directions, and an evil miasma hovered around like a nimbus in August. Cars’ brake squeaked so hard on the tarred road, black smoke ruptured and there smelt like an offensive burnt offering.
‘Dad, what’s going on?’ I trembled.
‘Calm down, Cecil. We have to find a safe spot.
There was no one to ask what was going on; everyone was busy running from something—not what they knew. Dad had just opened the car door to step down when three hefty men opened the passenger’s door, dragged me out, and threw me on the floor.
‘Dad!’ my voice tore out of its vocal.
As soon as dad turned into the awkward scene of his nineteen-year-old daughter grappling for her life from betwixt of three hefty, drunk, brutes, he flew over the bonnet and they received his full weight—all of them landing on the floor, wham!
‘Get your filthy hands off my daughter!’
‘Don’t move, else I shoot her!’ One of the thugs pulled out a trigger and pointed to my face, but dad did not think about it for a second. I was scared. I could see the hole in the gun from where the bullet would ping out and kiss me to death. Dad helped me up and his heavily veined-arms wrapped me like python stifling its prey.
‘Pow!’ The first firing pushed dad and me to the ground and his blood splashed on me.
‘Stay calm, Cecil. I’ve got you covered!’
Dad held me tighter and covered me better as he received the second, third, and fourth in his back. Onlookers fled into the nearest dunghill for safety. It had become a bloody Christmas. The police and ambulance arrived soon enough but dad had trickled out—dead.
‘I’m sorry, you lost him!’ The doctor pulled me into his arms to console me and I bit him so hard he screamed. That did not bring dad back. I knew it wouldn’t, I just had to transfer the aggression on someone.
This is the fifth year since dad died, and every eve of Christmas reminds me of a man who loved me so much that gave his life for me. Dad was buried somewhere in the open space where we have our neighbour’s Christmas party, and I love it because seeing that grave every day makes me feels like he is not far away from me.
Last year, as I stood at his grave on the eve of Christmas with flowers in my hands, recounting the tragic end for the umpteenth time, tears poured from my eyes and the pain was as though he just got shot. A soft, raspy voice startled me from behind.
‘Do you ever feel guilty that your father died covering you?’
I turned into Mr Jimmy—the Christmas Santa Claus preacher man.
‘Yes’, I nodded like a dying gecko.
‘I noticed there’s no year you don’t honour your father’s death because he saved your life’.
‘Yes, Mr Jimmy’, I replied, ‘He covered me, he took the bullets for me, and he died for me’. Liquid emotions began to leak from my eyes.
‘What do you think you can do to honour your father enough for what he did for you… I mean for saving you’.
I couldn’t think of anything befitting enough, but for a minute, I felt like God was giving me a blank check and I had to scribble my emotions all over it.
‘I would let the whole world know about what he did for me…’ I replied with strong gesticulations, ‘I would declare an international public holiday for him, and I would do anything that would make him happy wherever he is now…’ I didn’t think that was enough though, but I was lost for words.
Mr Jimmy exhaled. ‘Mr Jeremy was a good man, and a true Christian too’.
That was my father beside whose grave I stood.
‘Yes, he was’, I added without hesitation. No one would dare say he wasn’t, I would blink red. On his grave was written, ‘Jeremy Candy, 1967-2008’. He was a young soul.
‘But Jesus did even more for you’, Mr Jimmy said. ‘He didn’t just take the bullets, he gladly bore the shame and scorn. Like your father, he shielded you from the ultimate punishment of sin, and he loved you enough to die for you. But unlike your father, that was why He was born—to die, and He didn’t just die for you, but the whole world…’
I could sense that Mr Jimmy was about to preach to me or maybe he was already, but I had beautiful flowers of remembrance in my hand, and I was at the graveside, not in church.
‘At least, people should know when to preach’, I said to myself.
However, the more Mr Jimmy kept telling me about my father’s love and placing what Jesus has done above what my father did, the more my heart broke and I began to feel like I was sinking into the ground.
‘You want the whole world to know about what your father did and honour him for that, Cecil. You want an international public holiday for him, that’s good too, but your father died for you because somebody first died for him. And as you celebrate your father as your hero, also celebrate that man who died for your hero as a greater hero. Tomorrow is Christmas, Cecil, and that’s the essence of Christmas is to celebrate the reason of the birth of Christ; for his birth brought us hope, and His death brought us redemption and salvation’.
I was caught in a short, deep reflection, and I realized that four bullets are nothing compared to a crown of thorns, long jagged-edged nails piercing through the skin, hard whips from cruel Roman soldiers, the weight of the cross, the long trek, persecution, fear of death, the thirst on the cross, and being hung upon a cross just for love’s sake.
‘Sorry for your loss, Cecil…’ As Mr Jimmy’s touched my shoulder, an electrifying sensation ran through my body and I withered.
‘And Merry Christmas to you’, he turned and walked away as the pounding of his footsteps began to dwindle.
‘Yes, Cecil’. He paused.
‘Will you ask people who want to surrender their lives to Christ to lift their hands at the Christmas party tomorrow?’
Mr Jimmy chuckled. ‘I always see the resentment on your face every time I say that but I didn’t let it scare me because, from next year, it will become your responsibility. But yes, I will do that, like I always do, Cecil’.
‘Please don’t forget, Mr Jimmy, because my hand will be up’.
Christmas was no longer about the fun for me anymore. I had discovered the true Christmas and it meant something deep, personal, eternal, great and glorious to me. It’s a time to light of the world with hope and to reflect on hat great love God has bestowed on us.
On Christmas day, 2015, my hands were raised in response to Mr Jimmy’s Christmas sermon, but before then, he knew he already had me for the Lord. Mr Jimmy did not only pray for me, he handed the mantle to me. The following year, 2016, we celebrated a life well-lived; the eighty-nine year old had exhausted his days on earth, and I took over. Since then, while I bask in the joy of Christmas which reminds me of mankind’s only hope and God’s big heart, I remember my mission to peel the essence of the season and celebration bare from the costumes of fanfare and emptiness.