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President Paula-Mae Weekes

The following is President Paula-Mae Weekes’ Christmas message:

Today is Christmas Day, that joyous and significant occasion in the Christian calendar. Believers in Trinidad and Tobago and around the world commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ and draw inspiration from the enduring angelic proclamation “Peace on earth and goodwill to men.” The Christmas period also signals the winding down of the year, and what a year it has been.

I am sure that as we rolled into 2020 many of us had grand plans for this season, probably family gatherings at home and abroad, journeys to Paramin, office parties, school bazaars, and other festive events to mark the season and ring in the New Year. But, as 2020 has proven, even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry—and this year plans didn’t just go awry, they ran off the road completely.

Christmas celebrations have been added to the many traditions and events that have had to be modified, curtailed or altogether scrapped as a result of the coronavirus. This year, no church will be ram cram for midnight mass, any house you parang would be the wrong house, and given that many are cash-strapped, we may well come to understand finally the true expression of the adage “it is the thought that counts.”

But Christmas merry-making can be considered a minor casualty of COVID-19, when one takes stock of the devastating effect of the pandemic. Families have been plunged into mourning by the unexpected and untimely deaths of their loved ones and many of those who have survived the ravages of the virus may never fully regain their former good health. There are nationals abroad who are longing to come home, and some of our elderly are lonely and depressed because age and comorbidities make it dangerous for them to be visited by relatives and friends. Businesses have had to close their doors—some permanently and the livelihoods of a significant number of our population are threatened, disrupted or destroyed. Tenants have been evicted, and thousands of citizens formerly making ends meet, now find themselves on the breadline.

And as if the fallout of COVID-19 was not bad enough, heinous crimes continue unabated against our women and children even as polarisation and xenophobia run rampant.

Given that we are living in dark times, one could see why the spectacle of angels bearing good tidings, and the trope of peace on earth and goodwill to men might seem perversely counter-intuitive, or at least ironic. It would be easy to lose sight of the universal lessons of Christmas as the tsunami of bad experiences that swamped us during this year may obscure the significance of the season. But Christians can use this holy and contemplative period to ponder where in all of this is the Christ-child, and if the answer is not readily apparent, we, like the wise men, must look for Him, seek Him out. One of the fundamental messages of Christmas is to be found in the gospel of John, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ Christmas is a celebration of light at the darkest time of the year and darkness often serves to make stars shine brighter.

And so, into the darkness that is the selfish, uncaring and I dare say downright doltish behaviour of those zessers and wessers who cannot do without a fete, a beach lime, or patronising a bar, and who are willing to put others’ lives in jeopardy, a light shines brightly. It is the light of our frontline healthcare and other essential workers who put their own wellbeing at risk, with selfless and noble commitment to protecting our lives, as well as those of us who comply with the regulations even if we complain.

Into the gloom caused by the disruption of our education system, with changes that can leave some children behind, shine the countless teachers who have managed to pivot and now deliver quality education despite the challenges. Kind benefactors, both individual and corporate, have also brightened the darkness with their generous donations of devices and connectivity necessary for continued learning.

In our dark streets shines the light of sympathetic landlords who have reduced or forgone their monthly due, easing the stress on their tenants who have fallen into arrears, giving them a respite as they come to grips with their misfortune. Many considerate employers, even while under strain themselves, have been lifesavers to employees that they have kept on in these difficult times. These unselfish citizens offer glimmers of hope and blazes of love; they are indeed angels, albeit without wings or harps. We too seldom recognise and acknowledge our countryman’s propensity to do good. A multitude of our citizens practise altruism on a daily basis but their efforts often go unremarked. We are the beneficiaries of their goodwill all year through.

Even those of us for whom Christmas signifies nothing more than a commercial fiesta, some well-deserved days off or good reason to indulge our appetite, can find the rays of love and peace, hope and joy that typify the Christmas story. Trinbagonian kindness, charity and compassion explode at this time of year and their champions are not only the well-heeled—many who have little, give to those who have less. And our giving is not limited to the tangible, we also readily give of our time, our labour, and our service.

Stripped bare of its usual bells and whistles, Christmas can still be a joyous and peaceful time in which the light of hope radiates. COVID has placed no restriction on decorating our homes, preparing the customary Christmas menu, attending church in person or online, zooming greetings to our family, or exchanging gifts, and one wonderful gift that we can all give to our loved ones and the whole nation doesn’t cost a cent, and that is, the gift of good health—wearing our masks, washing our hands, social distancing, and adhering to all the protocols that protect us.

We say that Christmas is a time for children, as if adults are immune. Perhaps they can teach us a thing or two. Despite being among the most affected by the pandemic, children exemplify resilience, optimism, a sense of wonder, excitement and joy—all important aspects of the Christmas narrative. We would do well to remember the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, “We are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.”

In last year’s Christmas address, I promised that a number of citizens, representative of the national community, would be invited to the President’s House to commemorate its renovation and reopening. I am happy to report that this indeed came to pass with approximately 175 Trinbagonians visiting with us in July.

The staff of the Office of the President and I wish you a safe, happy and healthy Christmas and a bright and prosperous New Year.