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Religious festivals have lost their meaning

Three important religious festivals came together at the close of this year: Eid-ul-Fitr, Diwali and Christmas. Today is Christmas Day; Eid and Diwali fell together a few weeks ago.

Most Kenyans, therefore, have been in celebratory mode at year’s end. But what is it we celebrate, and what does it mean for us in our modern lives? What is the true meaning of Eid, Diwali and Christmas, and what lessons do these festivals hold?

Let us begin with Eid-ul-Fitr, which signifies the breaking of the fast that Muslims maintain during the holy month of Ramadan. Fasting is prescribed, the Qur’an tells us, so that the faithful may learn self-restraint. The temporary giving up of sensory pleasures is a humbling, an act of submission and self-restraint. It is intended to invoke discipline in the practitioner.

This discipline, note, is not just physical: it is really the mind that is being fettered and harnessed, so that it does not run away in the pursuit of empty pleasures. Those who fast are doing no good if they merely go without food or drink; being hungry and thirsty is of no use if you are simultaneously angry, ill-tempered, lustful and loose-tongued. Ramadan is a time for temperance in all things.

Ramadan is also a time for equalisation, where the rich (temporarily) feel and understand the hardships (routinely) suffered by the poor. The pain of hunger, felt by 800 million people on this planet every day, is felt momentarily by all who fast. This attunes the few to the condition of the many.

Crucially, Ramadan is also a time for giving: it is the month of charity. But this charity, too, is not about tossing a few coins and crumbs to beggars in the street. It is a time for genuine giving: the affluent give greatly of their wealth; the learned give knowledge; the artist gives his talent for the good of others. The giving of Ramadan is the generosity of spirit that raises the moral, cultural and educational level of the world.

Eid-ul-Fitr is the culmination of this month of charity, self-restraint and empathy. It is a celebration of our ability to exercise self-control and walk, even for a few steps, in the shoes of others. It is a confirmation of the spirit of oneness.

Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, has a similar provenance. It symbolises the importance of knowledge and wisdom, and of happiness and joy. It, too, has several emblematic pillars. Two stand out: Mahalakshmi and Mahashakti. The first refers to the concept of pure wealth – riches that are used for divine work, focused on others. The second stands for pure strength – potency and vigour that is used for the advancement of the world, not just oneself.

Diwali itself is the main day of a festival that celebrates giving. Millions of lamps are lit across the globe in Hindu homes, to symbolise knowledge. It is a time for reflection and deep thought, a time to understand the actions that will take us from darkness to light.

The lamp itself carries a deeper meaning. We are told that the oil in the lamp represents the cravings, aversions and self-centred behaviour that we must burn away. The wick is the ego, which must be consumed for light to emerge.

And Christmas, celebrated today throughout the world? We all know it marks the birth of Jesus Christ, truly one of the most remarkable beings to have appeared on this planet. Jesus was the personification of love, who reached out to all the dispossessed and disadvantaged of the earth, and who forgave his tormentors even as they crucified him. His message has been the inspiration for a movement that has lasted two millennia and touched billions.

So what is Christmas all about, and what are we commemorating on this day? To writer Sonia Choquette, Christmas is a festival of the human heart. Peace and goodwill to all is Christmas’s clarion call, and many believe it is a time when the vibrations of humanity rise to a new level of consciousness. It is also a time of giving – the giving of joy. For every person creating joy around him or her, there is another person whose pain is lessened.

So they are not so different at all, these three festivals. They speak to the innocent, the generous being inside us who knows the great joy of giving, of being there for the happiness and succour of others.

So why have we debased all three festivals so crudely, good people of Kenya? I wonder how many see these as occasions to have a riotous, inebriated good time, and how many know anything of the words written here? Do we even bother anymore to tell our children that there is more to it all than presents and parties, or is that a battle we lost long ago?

Ramadan is corrupted by many. Even those who claim to fast fastidiously feast ravenously every evening. The true spirit of fasting demanded that practitioners break the fast gently, with no over-indulgence and no extravagance. Otherwise what is the point of it all? If we are unwilling to learn the lesson of restraint, what have we learned beyond mere momentary denial? Neither Ramadan nor Eid is meant to be a time of profligacy – but you only have to observe the consumption of lavish feasts and banquets to know that this is long forgotten.

Diwali: when did the festival of light become the carnival of loud, ear-splitting explosions? How did we allow the time of giving to become the time of personal indulgence? No egos are being consumed here – just the millions of shillings going up (literally) in smoke to indulge the juvenile passions of the well-off. A time for reflection and deep thought? What, while being deafened by screeching rockets and thunderous bangs?

Christmas? A time to shop till you drop, eat to excess and drink yourself to distraction? A time to debase the higher concept of giving into the low act of exchanging trinkets? A time of indulgence and hedonism – an ironic way to celebrate the life of one whose essence was generosity and care for others.

What makes us abandon the road of higher thought and descend into the alley of gluttony? Partly it is the modern marketing machine, which primes us through incessant messaging to spend and indulge. All the media adverts and shop displays with their fake symbolism are trying to do only one thing – fool us into reaching deep into our wallets instead of our hearts. But let us not blame the purveyors of junk – the problem is with us. We don’t want to acknowledge the deeper message, just eat the turkey and the biryani and jalebi and then descend into sonorous oblivion.

What a shame that is. If even a few more bothered to understand the real riches of Eid, Diwali and Christmas, and endeavoured to put this thinking into practice throughout the year, we would have twice the country we do.

May your holiday season be restful, thoughtful, generous and filled with real joy.

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