Nothing gladdens the Christian heart as much as Christmas. The story of the birth of Jesus Christ never grows old, and even those who do not celebrate Christmas cannot avoid the spirit of the season.
Christmas is the ultimate magic for a child. Lured by the materialistic images on film and television, we might think that it is because of the presents children expect or do receive at Christmas.
That is not true. Children are happy at Christmas principally because there is something special in the air. It defies definition, but it is not joy, which is itself a product of the thing in the air.
In some parts of the world, the thing in the air may be seen as Santa, flying around the world to scuttle down chimneys to deliver presents to good children. But it is not Santa; he is a product of the thing in the air.
The thing in the air at Christmas inspires people, even non-celebrants, to take extensive troubles and travel amazing distances to be with their loved ones, just to be at that one needlepoint on the globe where they are free and fulfilled.
The thing in the air at Christmas makes forgiveness painless and easy. It expands hearts, multiplies smiles and hugs, and makes family of neighbors and strangers.
Pretence is difficult at Christmas: the thing in the air seems to set people free to be themselves, and to be receptive to others because they have also been set free.
That is why families seem to be at their happiest and most united at Christmas. Togetherness is infectious, sharing is easy, and giving is effortless.
That is what children sense at Christmas. That, not the presents, is what creates the mystery and the magic of the celebration of the birth of Christ.
But what if you are a Chibok family?
Chibok is the name of the Nigerian village where Islamic militants audaciously snatched 276 girls out of their college beds in April 2014, eight months ago. But it is also a symbolic reference to all of the other families across Northern Nigeria, including Kaduna and Plateau States and Abuja, where the militants have inflicted arson, looting, massacre, abductions and seizures.
It is a symbolic reference to all those families and communities where people have been beheaded or maimed; where hands and legs have been amputated, and families left in small pieces.
Chibok: a byword for communities left in shock. Families abandoned. Schools and hospitals burned down.
Chibok: a byword for communities overrun by militants and cut off from Nigeria.
If you are a Chibok family, if your family is in the hands of Boko Haram, would you be thinking about Christmas?
Perhaps not. I would be praying and acknowledging the birth of Christ, but I would also be thinking of politics.
Last week, Nigeria’s major political parties chose the men who will represent them in the February 2015 elections. Some of the processes still need to be clarified and concluded, but the general profile of the elections is set.
It is significant that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had no difficulty selecting President Goodluck Jonathan to run again. The party plans to run on the platform of continuity.
Mr. Jonathan himself thinks he has done very well, declaring in his acceptance speech he wanted to continue the work he began with the “Transformation Agenda.”
“I will work to secure Nigeria’s future,” he said. “I will serve with humility and moderation, with simplicity and forthrightness; with openness and inclusiveness, and with firmness and strength.”
Openness. Inclusiveness. Firmness. Strength. Enough images to make a Chibok mother dissolve into tears again.
Patience Jonathan, the First Lady, has also taken to the road, asserting continuity. She wants Nigerian women to vote for her husband again so he can continue with his “good work.”
Ever since her viral video ‘Diariz God o!” rant, by which she elicited a collective international gasp, nobody has heard Mrs. Jonathan say a word about the Chibok abductions or any of the shameless assault on the country by Boko Haram the first and primary victims of which are often women and children.
But now comes Christmas, which I know to be of great importance to the Jonathans, as Christians, and to their family.
The Jonathans will be bombarded with presents by the train load, bearing the same legend, “Merry Christmas!”
They will receive more Christmas cards and greetings than they can open. That is how generous Nigerians are, especially when you are a powerful figure. “Merry Christmas sah, and Happy New Year!”
The question is what the Jonathans give to Nigerians, especially the Chibok families, this unprecedented Christmas.
Not “Merry Christmas!” Not “Happy New Year!”
What do you give to a family which has had four or five members wiped out in one attack? What do you tell a mother whose two sons have lost their limbs? What do you tell a family whose children were killed in an attack on a college?
What do you tell a family all of whose members have become refugees in a land hundreds of miles from their burned-down village?
What do you tell families whose girls were abducted in Chibok eight months ago, and who may never be seen again because the government lied about the abductions when the victims were still within reach and return?
Not “Merry Christmas!” Not “Happy New Year!”
This is the reality that confronts the desire of the Jonathans to move on with their life of power and privilege. They are trapped between addressing the Chibok situation and accepting responsibility for it and ignoring it so they can chase their dream of remaining in power.
Until now, however, it has been convenient to carry on with business as usual, pretending that there are no disturbing debts of insensitivity and inhumanity that have not been discharged.
In Mr. Jonathan’s acceptance speech on Wednesday, he described the choice before Nigerians in the forthcoming election as being as simple as this: “A choice between going forward or going backwards; between the new ways and the old ways; between freedom and repression; between a record of visible achievements and beneficial reforms - and desperate power-seekers with empty promises.”
That is not being simple; that is being simplistic. In the next couple of months, Mr. Jonathan’s claims including that of “visible achievements,” will be tested. Unlike in 2011, the campaign trail will this time be policed by the shadow of his performance.
The Jonathans can have any kind of Christmas they want. But they must remember the thousands of Nigerians who cannot. They must remember those who will have nothing to eat, a place to eat it, or a loved one to share it with.
This Christmas, if the Chibok girls are not home with their families, safe and unharmed, it will be difficult for any Nigerian family truly to enjoy Christmas, for we are all stained by the guilt and failure of a government which cannot tell between power from privilege.
Openness. Inclusiveness. Firmness. Strength. Really?
Where are our girls?