Canada was disappointing when I first arrived 50 years ago from Lahore, Pakistan. For one, Canadians couldn’t speak English. I was only 10, but I had worked hard at my language skills by reading Charles Dickens, a children’s Bible and a dictionary. My new classmates, on the other hand, had a very casual approach to grammar and sentence structure. And on the occasions I pointed that out, they responded with epithets that I didn’t know existed.
There were other small annoyances. Christmas, for example. The annual pageant at the Anglican Cathedral Church of the Resurrection in Lahore was a grand spectacle in the late 1960s. I remember there was always a live baby Jesus, surrounded by dozens of people and real farm animals. The angels, one of whom was my mother, wore long gowns with flowing sleeves, which they extended to create a curtain for scene changes.
For us Christians in Pakistan, a minority in a Muslim-majority country, this hours-long show to a fully packed cathedral was a declaration of our faith and tradition. The Arabic word for a Muslim religious celebration is eid, which means festival. We Christians embraced that concept; our cathedral was a leader in pomp and circumstance. Our pageant was old-school, bigger-is-better Christendom, a colonial slice of the Raj.
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In Toronto, we landed in an immigrant neighbourhood of rental apartments and subsidized housing. The local church was a brick building that could fit into a side chapel at the Lahore cathedral. On Sundays, the congregation set out stacking chairs, the minister preached from a basic lectern, and communion was served from a folding table.
This modesty was a shock to our Pakistani sensibilities. This was smallness. In Pakistan, we loudly declared our faith. In Canada, we barely whispered its name. And at this congregation’s Christmas pageant, three months after we immigrated, the baby Jesus was a doll in a blanket. Barely a dozen people enacted the story.
We were already in shock moving from the wealth and comfort of our Pakistani lives to apartment living in Toronto. My father had wanted his Christian children out of a Muslim environment where he felt they would be denigrated. He brought us to a Christian world so we could thrive. A child’s doll in a manger was a disappointing metaphor.
We eventually settled into our lives in Canada, and I have slowly chipped away at the colonialist Christendom into which I was born. It hasn’t been easy. That culture has been in my family and in Canadian congregations I attended. In the process, I have often thought of that doll Jesus, held by a new Canadian girl playing Mary. (I once played Joseph alongside shepherds and kings from Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe and South America.)
I’ve realized those early years in that diverse congregation in that tiny church have taught me the true meaning of Christmas. Despite the royal visitors, the baby Jesus was born in an animal shack. Despite moments of intense anger, the adult Jesus spoke softly, told stories and healed by touch. Jesus was never meant for spectacle. Jesus has always been for a ragtag group of believers. Immigration brought me from circus pageants to a place of true grace and community. And it has only taken me a half century to learn that.
Andrew Faiz is an associate editor at Broadview. He lives in Toronto.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s December 2021 issue with the title “A Tale of Two Pageants.”
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