A 10-piece leather travel watch case at $10,300 is one of the more modest suggestions on the GWG Christmas gift guide this year (there’s also a Diamond Tiara at $107,000). Both are only a very small part of the $1.2 trillion that is the estimated value of Christmas food, decorations and gift sales this year. Clearly some of us are missing the point of Christmas, and that’s nothing new; since the early 1800s Christmas has been less about the birth of a Saviour and more about Santa and the sale of his Christmas goodies.
Gift giving is probably good for the economy in the short term, but at a time of unprecedented pain and inequality around the world, the way in which we express our humanity is more important.
The apostle Paul quotes Jesus Christ is explaining to the Church of Ephesus that, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’. For some, that may not be sufficient justification. Yet scientific research compellingly supports anecdotal evidence that giving is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness. Most of us will hear more than our fair share of sermons in December so I won’t get too preachy. That is the context to what I want to share; this post is about the two events held by our Merrill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation in December. Those events are also the highlights of our year at Dilmah.
A little more context – other events we host include Camellia Epicurean, with food finessed by some of the world’s finest chefs in exotic venues around the world, the conference and celebration amongst our Global Dilmah Family from 50+ countries, our Tea & Chocolate Masterclasses, Tea & Dessert degustation and more. All magical, yet these two remain our firm favourites and hopefully you will agree on the reasons.
On 2nd December, the Dilmah – MJF Foundation’s Peoples’ Christmas Market took place at our MJF Centre West in Moratuwa. 80 micro & small entrepreneurs formed an unique market with music, food, craft, farm produce and more, welcoming more than 1,200 visitors over the 6 hours that our market typically opens. It was a highlight because each of the vendors were assembled at their painstakingly decorated tables to share their passion – for sewing, woodwork, cooking, art, singing and a plethora of other activities. Some were blind or partially sighted, others challenged by developmental disorders and others typical but less fortunate.
The reason for their presence at the Peoples Market is important too. Battered by the pandemic, unemployed due to economic crisis, some unable to support their families, they were there to better themselves by offering their wares without the usual costs of doing so, learning and improving from the interaction with customers, hopefully profiting from the sale of their products and ultimately a chance at the dignity that every human has a right to.
Each of the 80 vendors had a powerful story of inequality, sacrifice, desire to progress and commitment. So enthusiastically and dedicatedly were the spices, handmade jewellery, traditional food, cloth & coconut shell kitchen accessories and other items presented that it felt like a privilege to participate in the journey of each of the micro entrepreneurs on the road to greater things.
The Peoples’ Christmas Market was the first occasion. On 9th December the MJF Centre West was transformed again, and this time by the same glow of merrymaking. The occasion was one of my late father’s most favourite; an event we call Celebrating Differences for its emphasis on looking beyond convention and celebrating diversity amongst the children, youth, women and men who participate – all beneficiaries of the humanitarian work of the MJF Foundation or Dilmah Conservation. 350 children and youth participated, supported by the Foundation’s teachers and therapists in thrilling an audience that was oblivious to whether Down Syndrome, Cerebral palsy, autistic, ADHD, typical or untypical.
There is nothing sadder in the world than the waste of human potential. In too many cases, that waste is unnecessary, only needing a changed mindset and nominal effort by a person or business that can help, to unlock someone’s true worth. Our Peoples’ Market happens with approximately quarterly frequency, to help aspiring entrepreneurs connect with their consumer, so they may have greater opportunity to share their passion and present their product, derive a fairer share of the profit from their efforts and a realistic chance at controlling their own destiny.
The objective of the markets, and the linked Small Entrepreneur Programme of the MJF Foundation, echo the story of a young man from a tiny village in Sri Lanka who set out to make the world a better tea. My father’s success is expressed today, in the lives of hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries of his philosophy of kindness. If not for his faith in God and the doors that faith opened, the handful of people who encouraged and supported him on his difficult journey, the MJF Foundation and Dilmah Conservation and the benefit they offer thousands could not exist.
It is no different with Celebrating Differences, because too hastily are children with different ability labelled disabled, with greater emphasis on the disability than on what that child’s ability – what he or she might be capable of in the right circumstances. The joy that radiated from the children at our Centre as they danced and rocked in their wheelchairs should evidence that every child and youth has ability.
Christmas is a wonderful time. Feasting, giving gifts, enjoying the festive spirit are all good; but at a time of unprecedented economic and social disparity, where conflict, fear and starvation exist in the same world that is marked by excess, waste and greed, kindness and the true spirit of Christmas are more critical than ever.
In the 1950s an African psychologist, Joseph Wolpe discovered that through gradual exposure, people could overcome their anxieties and phobias. He called it Systematic Desensitization. However as we collectively see avoidable deaths, starvation, unacceptable child mortality, malnutrition, injustice and catastrophic greed, we risk becoming so emotionally desensitized to pain, that we could normalise those tragic injustices that happen with growing frequency around us, which we see constantly on TV and social media. That would be inhuman.
As an autistic 15 year old girl showed the whole world in 2018, empathy and fear are best addressed by action not by looking the other way. The change that Greta Thunberg has wrought by taking action amidst global apathy, is pushing the course of humanity in a better direction. Faced by the fearsome issues of malnutrition, inequality, and more, our best response would be to act, and together we could achieve something great, while making ourselves merrier in the process.
A 20-something Sri Lankan from an ordinary, rural family decided that he would do something very different. He pioneered the world’s first producer owned tea brand, and made a pledge of kindness in every sip of his tea. He has benefited thousands of children, youth, women & men, with education, nutrition, housing and a multitude of good things. He chose not to look the other way, and the family business that Merrill J. Fernando built will continue to serve humanity, with greater kindness to people in need and to our natural environment.
That is genuinely the most joyful form of merrymaking to indulge in this Christmas. It’s biblical, scientific and factual. Enjoy the images from our Peoples’ Christmas market and Celebrating Differences 2023! Merry Christmas.