Shining a light on Christmas' true meaning
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere we turn.
From the Apia City Boulevard to the waterfront, friendship park, and Government buildings, including, even, the Police station, lights are being strung up to remind us of the advent of the holiest day of the year.
And who could begrudge people Samoans the joy these celebrations bring to the hearts of a nation that continues to stand tall despite having been battered without relent for more than a year?
This year, and the months leading up to it, will be remembered as one of the most trying in Samoa’s history.
After the measles epidemic ravaged our nation we were only months later hit by the effects of a global pandemic that has done the same to our economy and so many families’ livelihoods.
Anything that brings light to people’s lives at a time such as this is something to be celebrated.
But by the very same token, another thought gnaws at our soul as we see the construction of these extravagant displays and that is how the forgotten people of Samoa, the most impoverished members of our nation, will be spending Christmas.
The birth of Jesus Christ has, for millennia, been a holiday that Christians have celebrated by giving to the less fortunate without the expectation of anything more in return.
It has only been for a comparatively short period of time that gift-giving and public displays have become the centrepiece of how we mark this holiest of days.
Again, we cannot begrudge anything that lifts the nation’s spirits at a time such as this.
But there is a question of degrees - and whether such lavish displays do justice to the meaning of Christmas.
Foremost at our minds this holiday season are the many Samoan families, not too far from the centre of these celebrations, who will be going without this Christmas.
We read their stories every Sunday in this newspaper’s Village Voice column.
These are the families who sleep on concrete floors; families whose houses are not built to keep the rain out; families who lack access to water, electricity, or sanitation; families who, in other words, do not live with the dignity they deserve.
And so we are reminded of an October Cabinet directive that limited the 13 Government ministries to spending no more than $10,000 on Christmas celebrations.
“The funding for these efforts comes from the budget for Financial Year 2020-2021 and that each Ministry that has buildings should be decorated can spend up to $10,000," the confidential Cabinet document said.
That is a total of $130,000 of taxpayers’ money being dedicated to symbolic decorations.
It was the legendary American novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who recognised, towards the end of the 19th Century a shift in the meaning of the holiday devoted to Jesus’ birth turning away from its original meaning and towards commerce and gift giving.
"To give up one's very self – to think only of others – how to bring the greatest happiness to others – that is the true meaning of Christmas,” she wrote.
Mrs. Stowe’s timeless observation draws our mind back to the actions of Caritas Samoa and their Christmas giving programme, which was dedicated to sharing food, joy, and love with these forgotten people.
More than 200 families were the grateful recipients of food supplies and donations from selfless members of the public.
One 48-year-old recipient of generosity, Mereane Perenise, explained in overjoyed tones what a difference even a modest donation to the welfare of her household meant in advance of Christmas.
“There is only one member of our family with formal employment but we also try to depend on our land resources,” the mother-of-eight said.
“As a mother, trying to care for my children and grandchildren, this is a tremendous help.
“I pray that God will bless each and everyone that had the heart to donate to those who are in need.”
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive choices. We can have Christmas decorations and lights that lift the nation’s mood at a time when it is needed and charity at the same time.
But we should not forget that the very reason that the decorations are so needed this year are the same as why charity is making such a difference to families' lives. That is an unprecedented economic downturn that has touched almost every family in the nation but the poorest particularly hard.
Even half of the $130,000 budget would go a long way to helping families most in need this Christmas. The electricity bill alone for running the light shows cropping up all over town would change Christmas Day for hundreds of families across this nation.
So as we look up and appreciate the lights displays and the reminders of the impending holiest time of the year, we think it also an apt time to think of the ancient values of Christmas: selflessness and thinking of others.
As we string up this year’s lights displays or stand to take them in it may well be an occasion to pause for thought about what Christmas really means.