Cringggg!!! The tabletop alarm clock rings long and loud enough to awaken Gufran from his deep sleep. He hits “snooze” to get beneath the cozy comfort of his warm blanket.
Unable to find the same warmth and comfort he was enjoying, Gufran sits up on his bed. Freezing cold wind blowing through the narrow gaps in the wooden windows brushes under his ears. He hears the chirping of birds outside.
It’s still dark out as he looks back at the clock once again. It’s 5:15 a.m. It’s Christmas celebration day at the Town Hall, something he has long been waiting for.
Out of his bed in a spark, Gufran runs to the toilet before any of his other siblings can occupy it. Gufran’s mother wakes up to her greatest surprise – Gufran waking up so early. But she is quick to recall that it’s Christmas Day at the child development center and they, too, need to be there before the Christmas Program starts.
The pre-Christmas celebration program for Compassion-assisted children is organized at the town hall in small hill town in the Himalayan subdivision of Darjeeling district, in India, known for its orchid plantations.
Christmas celebrations start in full swing from the first week of December and last until Christmas Eve. A Christmas festival is organized at the market center, where people from all church denominations come and take part along with people from Hindu and Buddhist communities as well.
During the hour-long Compassion program, children act and perform songs, dance, choreography and the Nativity story, and present a video to highlight the message of Christmas for their parents and others in the audience.
Nearly two weeks of preparation goes into the development center’s Christmas celebration.
Older children are delegated the responsibility of stage decoration and costume design with help from the caregivers, while the younger ones help in decorating the Christmas tree and blowing up balloons.
Selection of children for dance, skits, choreography and video followed by rehearsals may sound tiring, but the children have no complaints. They consider themselves to be the owners of the event, doing their best to ensure nothing goofs up on the “D” day.
The children do not let their lifted spirits die down with the culmination of the Christmas celebration; instead they use this occasion to share God’s love with people of their own village, caroling in small groups throughout the night in freezing cold.
Children visit 10 to 12 houses each night starting at 10 p.m. and lasting until midnight and sometimes early morning, following up to Christmas Eve.
The Christmas Program is just about to start, but Gufran is still a little way from the town hall. He scurries with his siblings through the rear exit to find a comfortable corner, where he sits them down and then finds place for himself among his peers and mates.
The programs move in sequence, one after the other, but Gufran’s heart is far from all that. He is caught up in thinking about the gifts he is so earnestly looking forward to receiving this Christmas.
Christmas without an exchange of gifts is unheard of. Christmas gifts have special significance in the lives of children at the center. Of the 273 registered children, 85 percent hail from communities where parents cannot even afford one set of new clothes for their children in a year. The gifts the children receive during Christmas are of paramount value to them. They cherish the gifts for the whole year, until next Christmas comes.
Coming from a Muslim home, Gufran is a smart, shy young fellow. Now in his sixth grade, Gufran is mature for his age, with difficult circumstances surrounding him. He tries everything he can to help his parents.
Gufran’s father, Mukhtar, is a small-time tailor by profession and a father of seven children. His income is not big enough to take care of nine with ease.
The family lives in a one- room, 8-foot- by- 8-foot house with just one window to ventilate the suffocating exhalation of eight people sleeping inside.
Made of wood and aluminum corrugated sheeting, their small home leans against the side of the mountain. With no electricity and water paucity compounded by recurrent landslides during monsoon, Gufran’s father had given up hoping for something better, let alone wishing a brighter future for his children.
Gufran’s parents know little to nothing about the true essence of Christmas and why it is celebrated with such grandeur everywhere. All they have is a common understanding that Christmas is a festival of Christians, like they have Bakh-R-Id in Islam.
“We wake up early to finish our work for us to be at the Christmas celebration with Gufran on time, to see him perform on stage,” one of his sisters says with a chuckle.
Gufran studies at Grace Academy. He is learning a lot of good things. His parents have high hopes that one day he will become an able citizen of the country.
The changes that his parents have seen in him after his enrollment at the development center make them certain of their dream becoming a reality one day – a dream they never could imagine without help from Gufran’s sponsor.
While the gift distribution program is about to get under way, Gufran looks at his social worker in eager anticipation that his name will be called out, as he failed to collect his gift from the center.
He sits cross-legged in a reclining seat with much patience. Finally the announcer utters the name of the last gift recipient, and that is none other than Gufran.
His face changes from uncertainty to excitement. He walks up the dais to collect his gift as he chuckles at everyone on the stage.
Gufran got a lot of things for Christmas from his sponsor this year: a hooded jacket, a new pair of sports shoes and a T-shirt, plus a warm, furry blanket for the whole family to beat the cold winter.
Celebrating Christmas at the center is significant for the children. Christmas is a time for giving, a time for receiving, a time for forgiving and not deceiving. It ushers in a season of hope, joy, love and peace.
Forgetting things of the past and embracing the future with hope of a better tomorrow are what everyone looks forward to in this season. Christmas brings a lot of joy and festive flavor that the children are also not withheld from.
“Christmas is particularly special . . . [It] gives us a good opportunity to share about God and His love to many parents of our children who come from Hindu and Buddhist families,” says Madan, the center manager.
The Christmas Program culminates with a vote of thanks from the center director to all the invited parents and families. Gufran’s focus is caught up somewhere else. He is in a hurry to scurry back home and show his dad the jacket he got.
As day breaks into dusk and evening falls on a cold foggy day, Gufran sits back to refresh and relive the joyous moments, winding them back in his memory.