Faith and Christmas

A Cozy Christmas SceneAs Christmas draws closer, I find everything I do bears an increasing sense of urgency. Upon completing a task, I wonder “Is this it?”: is this the last thing I have to do before I can finish for the year? I frequently harbour visions of sitting on a comfortable sofa with a brightly lit tree and a warm, glowing fireplace in the background. I can imagine picking up a cup of hot apple cider, taking a sip and getting a sharp kick of fruit and cinnamon, and then realising that there is nothing left to be done, at least until we’ve stepped into January. Until that moment, however, there are lists, tasks and errands. Bags are there to be packed, presents are there to be wrapped, the car is there to be fuelled up and driven far on visits to friends and family. The list eventually peaks, and then winds down, leading to that quiet moment when stress finally dissolves, but it wouldn’t be Christmas if there wasn’t a last minute tidal surge of things to do.

Thanks to just such a wave, yesterday I found myself at the White Rose Shopping Centre attending to an errand. I don’t derive much pleasure from shopping, so the idea of plunging into a mall just when the fever for consumption is at its raging height did not appeal to me. After finding a parking place which was mercifully close to the entrance, I stepped inside. The all too familiar theme of “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” played in the background. The stores were decorated with plastic trees in every colour including green, their garish coloured lights blinked. A big poster advertised Canadian diamonds. There was a loud, prevailing hum, the sound of all the conversations happening in the centre combined with the footfall of a thousand pairs of feet. There was the occasional laugh to punctuate the noise; but it was clear that this was a horde: clothes were being tried on, cups of coffee bought, electronics being tested, wrapping paper crunched and toys being squeezed and made to make noise. I wondered if a church choir started up in the middle of the mall with a tune like “In the Bleak Midwinter”, how many would pause and reflect on the true beauty of the season: namely, we have a chance to be quiet, and to reflect on family, love and faith?

The tune changed to “Jingle Bell Rock”; I found the store I needed. The music shifted yet again to Mariah Carey letting fly with her Christmas wishes. I quickly finished my task and walked out. I don’t think I was particularly cautious or conscious of speed as I drove away.

The next item on my list required returning to Bradford. Christmas possesses an air of expectation that we are simultaneously supposed to relax yet be at our best. In years gone by, my father and I would go to an Italian barber near my parents’ New York home for a festive tidy-up. I recall old copies of the New York Daily News in the waiting area containing articles fretting about the Knicks basketball team, the scents of aftershave and hair tonic, and the peeling white formica on the counters. However, my barber now is Mr. Khan, who owns an establishment on Killinghall Road. A modest, quiet man, he told he learned his trade in Karachi; he was taught well. He is the most precise and thorough barber I’ve ever encountered.

I found a place to park and went into his shop: he was shaving a gentleman who wore a light blue kurta. Mr. Khan nodded to me and said “Hello”. I replied in kind. I sat on a black bench awaiting my turn and used my smartphone to consult Twitter. Then two other gentlemen entered the shop: one had a thick black beard and wore a grey sweatshirt, the other, with a less profuse beard, wore a darker grey shirt with a hood. The first man seemed rather agitated and spoke to Mr. Khan in rapid Urdu. Mr. Khan stretched out his hand in a gesture which said, “Be calm”. Then he quietly went over to the bench next to mine and lifted up the seat; this revealed a storage compartment. He pulled out a rolled up rug and unfolded it: it was green with an oriental pattern. He placed it carefully on the floor to face Mecca, and the agitated man quickly took up a position to pray. Mr. Khan returned to his customer. The prayers continued. It was still, it was silent, apart from the sound of clothes rustling as the gentleman went through his devotional motions and the slight scrape of a razor. After he completed his prayers, the man was no longer agitated; I believe he thanked Mr. Khan. The barber nodded in reply; the two men departed. Mr. Khan finished with his client, who then stood and took an admiring look at himself in the mirror.

Mr. Khan turned to me. “Do you mind if I pray before I do your haircut?”

“By all means,” I replied, “You go right ahead.” I felt stupid saying this.

The Holy KaabaI took my seat in the barber’s chair as he began to pray. As I looked up, I noted, as I had many times before, a gilded picture of the Holy Kaaba which he had carefully stuck to the wall. Mr. Khan’s previous client counted his money. Again, absolute silence prevailed. As Mr. Khan finished, two more gentlemen came in: one was elderly and wore a Pakul, a hat most commonly associated with Afghanistan. I don’t understand what he said, but I believe I heard the word “mosque”. Perhaps he wondered why they were praying in a barber’s shop given that there was a large one less than a block away. He cast a glance at me: his gaze was not hostile, but rather curious. After a moment, he went out again. Mr. Khan rolled up his rug, put it away. He then turned his attention to cleaning me up. Two more clients came in and took their seats. They and Mr. Khan conversed mainly in Urdu for a time. The words “Matte” and “High Gloss” were spoken. I can only assume that they were either talking about photography or paint.

As Mr. Khan did his work, cutting, shaving and tidying, I couldn’t help but contrast the peace of the shop to the White Rose Centre. This is supposed to be a season in which there is “peace on earth, goodwill to men”. But where was it at this point, in the din of the shopping mall or in a barber’s shop which was entirely absent of Christmas’ flashiness? In which place would contemplation of man’s place in the universe be more possible? Who was more overtly spiritual, the shoppers quaffing the lattes or Mr. Khan and his neighbours and friends? Perhaps he did have a task list to go through prior to the holidays: it is clear that he works very hard, he is there 6 days a week, his opening hours suggest 10 to 11 hour days. Perhaps even there is a sense of urgency in his preparations for the coming year. But one didn’t feel it in the calm that prevailed.

Mr. Khan is one of the few barbers who still gives patrons a fresh hot towel after a shave. I lay back for a few minutes as its salubrious heat penetrated my face. The scent of disinfectant reminded me of the old Italian barber back in New York. I knew after this I’d have much more to do. After all, I had to feed my three cats and I had trash to take out and dinner to cook. Shortly, I’d be on a plane contending with in-flight meals and limited legroom. I knew I’d have to hoist bags and find a sign with my (likely misspelled) name on it held by an indifferent taxi driver. But for that moment it was quiet; none of the season’s tension was there. Yes, it’s Christmas and paradoxically, it can leave little room for peace and faith, but that space can be found nonetheless.

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