The Camps at Christmastime

Christmastime! A time for tinsel and jingle-bells, for train rides home and shopping trips, catch-up coffees and work parties. A time for saying “a time for –“ a lot and a time for a certain insularity of culture which is never so falsely universal as it as this time of year. For many of us, Christmastime is what makes the long winter bearable. This season is part of our cultural identity. Maybe you have spent a Christmas away from home, in a far off country, surrounded by people who do not celebrate it. Did you take your traditions with you? Did you make the turkey anyway? Order gifts through Amazon to be delivered in time back home? What if you couldn’t?

There are many, many places in the world where the 25th of December is eclipsed by other dates around the calendar, festivals borne out of a ground fertile with heritages and cultural practices far from our own. And right now in the tent cities of Europe there is a poverty beyond the material. There is a grief for the unity and heritage of the land you come from. From the pop-up housing of derelict estates in England, to the borderlands of Scandinavia, sweeping eastward to the campsite zones of the middle-east, the crisis of life which has brought many people to press up against fences in fear is also robbing them of the truth of their contexts and the joy of their childhood traditions.

You may be familiar with some of the harrowing images of the journeys: the images of washed up children on beaches and barefoot men carrying their daughters along dirt tracks. But imagine, if you will, what that displacement means once the fleeing has been done and you are left with the waiting.

Canvas walls and raw dirt floors; the rationing of water and the scarcity of new clothes or toys. Walks through rows and rows of the litter-filled ghettos to visit the medical stations. People from every background and practising faith are in the same positions, scrambling for the same safety. The Bosnian family next to the small group of Iranian widows, who in turn are next to the nervous Afghan teens and the nursing Syrian mothers who look too young to have left their parents themselves. The young men and the kids playing football and the tired fathers and the frail elderly sat on tarpaulin for blankets to keep out of the mud. Life here falls into makeshift patterns, a shallow workability which serves the barest of needs.

Winter is another hurdle of the year to be survived. All that might be seen of Christmastime is the petulance of bad weather wreaking havoc with what little comfort the tent cities of Europe have yielded to them. Yet these ramshackle communities, thrown in together through harsh misfortune, deck the halls with boughs of whatever they can find to remember and preserve the colours and songs of the lands from which they travelled.

Weddings still take place in refugee camps. The volunteers scramble around for rich-coloured dresses to clad a young Indian bride just as they would to clothe a newborn baby – a marker of new beginnings and progression amidst the stagnancy of life here. Funerals and prayers are led by the wise-men and religious figures of every kind to answer profound human grief and offer healing from back home. There is every walk of life happening all in one vast, temporary continent littered around and throughout Europe.

And there is celebration happening, too: makeshift Christmas in a makeshift home; Eid Al-Fitr done as well as it can be by Muslims who did not know each other before but have marked the faith of their neighbours in the determined keeping of prayer times each day in the camp; the lights of Diwali light up every tent when the time comes around. These people, who fight to remember that they are so much more than just “refugees”, bring colour to the dust and canvas by bringing with them identity which goes beyond their material possessions and situation.

For someone far away from their home countries, the joy of these celebrations is marked by loss. The season’s festivities are a reminder to keep and participate in a way of life to which you no longer have access. Christmas is no human right, but the deep, life-giving affirmation of communal identity when we come together to celebrate a season – no matter what that celebration is – is something each man, woman, and child across the globe deserves and needs.

Participate in Christmas – or any of your heritage this year – and as you do, remember people who will not be celebrating Christmas: because they do not have the facility – or because they are lost to a refugee camp where they cannot celebrate anything at all. But also remember they are building their cultures and traditions from scratch, and reimagining the ceremonies and customs that choreograph their past lives and histories. They are turning their mismatched communities into the unlikely wellsprings of celebration and life because that’s what gives them hope.

By Kristin Briggs