EKOZILEN: WHY I DON'T LOOK FORWARD TO CHRISTMAS
NORTH KOREA, officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea , is a tiny decree pit dictatorship near China in northeastern Asia . The major problem with decrepit tiny dictatorships, especially a 'communist' one with a succession of megalomaniac leaders like Kim Il Sung and his descendants, is that the government determines what you see, hear, say or do. It even attempts to control what you think. How it achieves all this, or attempts to do so, is simple really - it thrusts its ideology in your face. So when your kid goes to school the ideology is fed into him. When you go into a departmental store you see products designed to remind you of it. When you drive down the street or go to the beach images of the Leader stare down at you. And when you put on your telly or radio the message is the same.
That is the feeling you get every Christmas season. Suddenly you find you can relate perfectly with the people of Eritrea , Turkmenistan and North Korea . For you have nearly zero control over what you hear, see, or wear. Regular programmes are disrupted in the electronic media to make way for Christmas programming. Buildings are decorated with bright colours and shimmering lights. You go to work and your colleagues want to talk about nothing else. You return home and the wife is hyperactive making Christmas preparations.
What you eat or drink at Christmas is not up to you - those must have been written on stone tablets and handed down at Mount Sinai . You can't miss the pattern, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas. Here it is rice in the morning and pounded yam or amala in the evening. There it is rice throughout Christmas Day and pounded yam or amala throughout Boxing Day. If you like your poundie in the morning and rice in the evening, go hug a transformer. If you don't like rice at all go take a hike. And if you live in some cheerless leprosarium and wish Madam First Lady and the assorted brigade of absent-minded yuletide do-gooders would cut down on the monstrous quantity of food they haul in at Christmas and do something - just a little - about the starvation you and your fellow housemates endure for the remaining eleven months and three weeks or so of the year, go jump into a lake.
Children gorge themselves with chocolate and cream while adults pile their plates high with meat. The impact of the costs in health bills resulting from this gastronomic overindulgence on Nigeria's GDP is yet to be ascertained by development economists. Cities are not much better than the villages - the smell of tomato and chicken broths generally rules the mornings and rice with salad is king - except for the fact that you may be able to escape 'special jollof' by taking the option of going to a fast food outlet to seek out what normal food you can find. There was a Youth Corps member posted to one small town. Cooking was not his strong point and he was yet to make friends he could share their food. Somehow he missed the fact that restaurants would not open on Christmas Day. He subsisted on water for a whole day.
Christmas also means spending money. You see, women love Christmas. As do the supermarkets and gadget – as well as grocery-exporting countries like China and South Africa. Your wife and kids don't want to hear anything about a recession. The girlfriend expects a gift and if you know what is good for you she better get it. The other day a would-be sociologist propounded a theory in a popular Nigerian online forum that ladies suddenly become friendlier when Christmas is near. To back up his theory he presented case studies of his friends who narrated how ladies they had spent long months stalking and 'toasting' had suddenly started giving favourable signals once Christmas was around the corner.
This, he theorised, was in the hope of catching some 'Christmas mugu'. Like the proverbial bird that changed its flight pattern in response to men's hunting prowess, he revealed that men were getting wise and many were now resolving to give all 'toasting'-related matters a wide belt in the 'ember months'. But, of course, the list of those who expect Christmas gifts is not diminutive - there are relatives, colleagues, former friends, former enemies and many more.
By far the most dictatorial aspect of Christmas is the ritual of gifting. You have nothing against gifts, except that they are quite simply often things you don't need - that is, they do not feature in your pattern of ends and scarce means. Most gifts fall into this category. Sometimes you wonder if the government shouldn't make a law on pragmatic gifting, placing on gifters a duty to assess the needs or wants of potential gift recipients. There are people who like to wake up and see material things and all sorts of gizmo around them. If you are among of this acquisitive lot, skip this paragraph. But if you are not, you probably are aware that the true value of any possession is not its cost in naira or dollar but its usefulness to its possessor in her ordinary business of life.
Still it gets worse - if it didn't there would be nothing to complain about really since all you would have to do with superfluous items is find someone who needs them or pass them on to your city's waste management agency. But gifts, you see, are not always innocuous. Some are toxic. Some are plain dumb and you really have to make an effort to contain your irritation. You are not talking Greek gifts here; you are talking gifts given with good intents turning out to constitute a millstone around the receiver's neck. The situations being described here occur when you receive a gift that (i) will cost what you can barely afford in money or time to install, use or maintain; (ii) comes with some moral or ethical baggage, for example, an uncertified diamond - remember 'The Liberian War Lord and the British Model'? - or a product imported from a clime that gives you reason to suspect that slave labour may have been employed in its production.
You have nothing against spending time with family, having a work-free day, giving and receiving gifts or taking your friends out. You have nothing, even, against eating turkey or hearing carols. And if you are a girlfriend who just nailed another blackberry or a trip to Dubai no one is begrudging you anything. It is the way Christmas piles it all on, leaving the individual without any space for private contemplation that leaves you disenchanted. The only thing you can find to compare to it is something called the 'Olympic invasion'. During the 1994 Winter Games at Lillehammer , Norway , the city's population doubled. And then 100,000 people came into and out of the city daily to watch competitions. The 'Olympic invasion' phenomenon is a problem for every city that hosts the Games. Some Lillehammer locals who could not cope reacted by getting out of town and were dubbed 'sports refugees'.
Now, the problem in the case of Christmas is that from its humble Saturnalian origins it has since morphed into a global dictatorship that reaches as far as sunrays and so there is nowhere to which you may skedaddle for a Christmas-free hibernation! Whoever invented the phrase 'human family' did not give the world an empty metaphor. It must be conceded, though, that many people do feel really happy at Christmas, albeit for a few days. The same goes for all the wahala – it blows over soon enough and you are back to democracy. Except, perhaps, for the poor who often burn their last savings and go into debt to murder goats, put up gaudy decorations and rent earsplitting amplifiers, all in a senseless bid to show that they are up to it. It is the situation aptly captured as 'that peculiar poor man's pride' by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his great novel Crime and Punishment.
Not that you hate Christmas or other traditional social ceremonies. Far from it! It's just the way Christmas piles it all on, leaving the individual. . .
• Ekozilen lives in Lagos.