Only one man in our lifetime ever created mass audiences for pipe organ music, and he was gay.
Virgil Fox did miraculous things, controversial but fabulous things with the pipe organ and with his life. He was a virtuoso, a genius, and as queer as a three-legged goose.
Pipe organs are the most complex musical instruments so far ever invented. They were perfected in the 18th century in Germany and then in France. Johann Sebastian Bach was the undisputed master, the greatest composer for the pipe organ who ever lived; and the music world is divided between those who think Virgil Fox was the greatest performer of Bach’s work and those think Fox was the most egregious desecrator of Bach’s masterpieces.
First some facts.
Virgil Fox was born in 1912 in Illinois, not far from where I was born. He was a church organist when he was ten, and played his first solo concert to an audience of 2500 at the age of 14. He began to record for RCA and Columbia in the 1930s, and after serving in the Army Air Force in World War II he was hired as organist at Riverside Church in New York City in 1946 where his lover and partner was choir director. Fox developed the Riverside Church pipe organ into one of the largest instruments in the world. In the 1950s people lined up two hours early to be assured a place to sit inside the church for services and concerts. Fox’s improvisations on hymns were phenomenal. His recordings of organ music made both him and Riverside Church world famous. But the music so overwhelmed other aspects of the church services that he was asked to resign in 1965. His very public conflict with the choir director and their break-up may or may not have had anything to do with his leaving the church for a concert career. All of this was when being out, gay and a church musician were supposed to be incompatible. As a concert performer Fox played to large audiences. His flamboyant style, his glittering shoes and colorful jackets, and his embellishments of classical works of music earned him critical scorn and large audiences. He was routinely compared to Liberace, with whom he was a good friend. At the time, Fox, Liberace and Leonard Bernstein were the best known gay musicians in the world … before Elton John and Prince. But like his gay successors Fox played for younger audiences and brought classical music to them in a time it was thought to be impossible. He toured the USA from coast to coast with a massive Rodgers electronic organ he called “Black Beauty”. Some of his concerts featured light shows and smoke – when all the color of Woodstock music was provided by shirts and skin, a decade or more before rock concerts dared such extravagance as Fox’s concerts. His success enabled him to buy a 26 room mansion into which he moved with a new young lover, further scandalizing conservators of social values, as patrons of classical music tend to think of themselves. Fox continued his concert career and his celebrity status even after contracting pancreatic cancer. He died in 1980 and is buried in Illinois, not far from where I was born.
Before reading further, I suggest you watch this YouTube clip of Fox at his controversial best “dancing” and encouraging his audience to dance to Bach’s “Gigue Fugue”. The picture quality is not good, but you can see how Fox thought relating to his audience was more important than the music itself. That was outrageous to many, but there was far worse, and it had nothing to do with his personal life, his lifestyle or his gender orientation. The fact that it did not, indeed, is remarkable. If you enjoyed the dance, click here to listen to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major. All his critics admired his ability to instantly play more than 250 pieces of music from memory.
The unprecedented offense that Fox committed was to depart from the norm with the music. For a century the musical world had been trained to respect the importance of maintaining the authenticity of the music. Great effort was made to recreate the sound of Baroque music, like Bach’s, as closely as possible to the way the original audiences had heard it. Fox broke all the rules. He rehearsed his concerts at double speed, and played pieces faster than any other organist dared, or was able. Critics sniped that Fox also was unable to play as fast as he did. “His left hand lacked accuracy” critics thought. “He’s showing off at the expense of the music.” There was an obvious element of showmanship in Fox’s playing, both in church and out. Performers were expected to wear black ties and tails. When Fox did, the lapels were velvet and he came with a cape lined in scarlet. For the most part he preferred psychedelic colors and collars and cuffs of lace, which “distracted from the music”. Classical music concerts are traditionally solemn affairs where the audience is to be extremely quiet and even applause is scripted. Listeners are to appreciate the music and how well it is performed as opposed to how fabulous the performer is. In order to reach his young audiences Fox did not apologize for classical music or pander to them, but he played for them. Never did he popularize for the sake of being popular himself. But he adapted and contextualized. He was hopelessly sentimental when he played romantic pieces by Mendelssohn or the French composers of the 19th century. A Bach organist is not supposed to do that. And most of all a performer is not supposed to tell audiences what they are to like about a piece of music, which Fox loved to do. “Listen to how I spell out B A C H with my feet,” he’d instruct them, drawing attention to the rhinestones wrapped around the heels on his slippers. Critics hated that.
The name Virgil Fox has not survived in popular culture into the 21st century. He died 35 years ago this coming October 25. But his concerts and albums have been digitally re-mastered and are still selling well. He is the only performer (as opposed to composer) whose works are still often featured in concerts in his memory. No person coming into prominence as an organist fails to kneel to the legacy of Virgil Fox.
What’s more he is a gay hero, a model for being out and honest, and a model for taking ones talent and going as far as possible with it.
There’s no reason I chose to write about Virgil Fox right now except that a new organist has appeared on Facebook several times recently. Cameron Carpenter ("Neo Organ Boy") reminds me of Virgil Fox in terms of talent, eccentricity and self-assuredness, and he is on Wikipedia’s listing of “Bi-sexual people A-F” a few names below Caligula, so he’s one of us. That’s why. I encourage you to watch this 6-minute video about the sensation that Carpenter has generated from his genius maneuvering of the pipe organ.
Dr. Rebecca Hall is making a long-term, in-depth study of funeral customs in Thailand. I think she’s on the right trail; if you want to understand the culture of a people there is no better place to start than with their funeral customs. Her purpose in coming recently was to study tung sam hang, 3-tailed banners. They are often used here in the North at the front of a funeral procession on the way to a cremation grounds. Rebecca had a number of questions to which she had been receiving conflicting answers. So I took her to visit with the abbot of Wat Ta Pong in the village next door to our house. Tu Daeng was available. Here are my notes on our conversation about funeral customs:
Tu Daeng, the Abbot of Wat Ta Pong was reluctant at first to talk about the “Three Tailed Banners” used in funerals. It is a taboo subject he said, and then amended his comment by adding, “You should ask those who make them, they are used at funerals.”
Later he warmed up to the subject, to some extent. He said that banners are usually made by the same people who make the catafalque for funerals. The banner and the catafalque are ordered by someone who is making arrangements for a funeral and delivered at the same time. He agreed that if the funeral did not involve a catafalque then anyone could make the banner if they had ever been ordained a monk or novice.
The banner is in the stylistic shape of a human. There is the head and body and the lower part preparing to take flight to heaven.
“When a person dies,” the abbot said, “the spirit wanders around wondering where it should be. It is looking for its place. When it sees the banner it will follow it and take its flight to heaven.” He commented also, “The banner is black and white, representing both the good and the bad that the person has done. It contains the name of the dead person as well as the date of birth and death and the age.” He reiterated that this was to aid the spirit to identify where it should be going. Tu mentioned that for other life extension ceremonies the cloth banners representing people’s spirits are colored, with various colors representing aspects of character.
“The ‘undertaker’ usually carries the banner. He is dressed poorly. Otherwise some drunk or mentally deficient person is recruited to carry it.” The banner is to be carried by the dregs of society or by someone whom no one would be tempted to emulate. [In village society the “undertaker” is virtually an outcast, but he is the one who prepares bodies for being put in caskets, prepares the cremation fire, hacks open the skull of the dead person at the last moment before the casket is set afire, and helps with gathering the cremated remains the next day.]
The banner is always burned in the cremation, the abbot insisted. Its very purpose is to show the spirit of the deceased the way to heaven. The cremated remains are gathered in a white cloth or in an urn covered with a white cloth (but not the banner of the day before). In our part of the country, Tu said, the bones are turned to powder and mixed with soil (and other things?) and stored or interred. The disposal of the bones varies from place to place.
There is also a two-tiered metal frame (somewhat resembling a funnel upside down topped by a small cone, all painted green) that Tu Daeng said holds 16 silver and gold leaves. The model he had brought for us to see only had 8 leaves, as if it was one of a pair. The leaves were called by the same term as the three tailed banner. Each of the leaves had something glued to one side. On one pair of leaves were grains of rice, on another grains of sand, and on another were small white flowers. These frames with their dangling leaves are often placed on top of the coffin during a wake.
The abbot has explained a lot, after all.
Aside from the folklore and the tradition, this raises the central question of what is going on in a Northern Thai funeral. A great many of the customs have to do with trying to make sure the spirit of the deceased finds the way to heaven. In this regard we could mention the customary fireworks, the design of the prasat (catafalque), the events at igniting the cremation fire, and several kinds of offerings. There is obviously a great deal of anxiety about wayward spirits (pii,ghosts and sometimes demonic spirits). That is confirmed repeatedly in folk traditions regarding supernatural occurrences, many of which are attributed to wandering, malcontented spirits.
The custom of having the banner carried by someone unattractive can be explained as a safeguard against the spirit being tempted to enter the banner carrier. It is a dangerous job. The spirit is distraught and may confuse the surrogate deceased with the porter. The same logic sometimes is used to name a baby “dog”, so the demonic “purchasing mother” will not be tempted to carry the baby’s spirit away.
Without waiting for Rebecca’s scholarly article, I will tentatively speculate about the 3-tailed banner. In the example which Rebecca provided (accompanying this essay) the name of the deceased has not yet been inscribed. Even without the name spelled out, the spirit of the deceased will be attracted and directed by the banner. Tung (long narrow banners suspended from tall bamboo poles to catch the breeze) are used for a variety of occasions, but they have one thing in common: they symbolize spirits. If you see a tung you think of spirits. But, as with all aspects of supernatural faith, there is an element of ambiguity and uncertainty. If the banner flutters or twists, as it is designed to do, it could be because of a stirring of the air caused by a spirit.
Another instructive device is the symbolic tree that Tu Daeng and his novice showed us. Trees are axial symbols; they connect earth to heaven. The little metal tree with its 8 leaves (note: 8, an inauspicious number rather than 9) stands for earth and all its requisite provisions. “Keep your eye on the prize,” the little tree says to the disconsolate spirit surrounded by signs of mourning and death.
Banners on auspicious and meritorious occasions are meant to attract spirits and have them involved in the festivities as benefactors or beneficiaries.
The three-tailed banner of a funeral is supposed to entice the spirit to follow the procession from the familiar home and village into the liminal, threshold precincts of the cremation forest (cemetery, called baa chaa or “lingering forest”). It would be natural for a spirit under those circumstances to be skittish, so its attention is repeatedly drawn to the presence of the deceased in hopes that the spirit will believe the priest’s chanted references to the naturalness of all that is going on and the benefits of leaving this world. Meanwhile, the banner flutters with its tail like a bird taking flight, like a phoenix to be precise.
Here in Thailand the second Saturday of January is a national holiday. It is Children’s Day. Schools, government agencies (at least some of them) and numerous businesses have a party to make children feel important in line with the slogan “Children are the future of the nation.”
It would be foolish to try to make a casual trip to the zoo or any of the malls today. The crowds would be intimidating. But children will be thrilled to get little toys or souvenirs, treats to eat and sweets to drink.
Here in our village we combined our resources to have a local party on Children’s Day. From the looks of it, all families with small children brought them, and some neighbors came from nearby villages, too. Not everything was about what the kids got. Several of the children were ready to perform on the stage. There were games with prizes and ongoing refreshments. The climax of the evening was an extensive drawing for “door” prizes including two bicycles and countless smaller items. Everybody got something.
These parties are going on all over the country. There must be tens of thousands of parties for little children altogether. In fact, the festivities are spread over two days.
I want to reflect on our village party. The work of putting up the temporary stage was handled by older young people. They were busy all afternoon. Fried rice was cooked by the housewives association. The day began with a collection of money that was publicized over the village public address system. As the names of donors and amounts were read, it sounded like people were being generous.
From smaller beginnings a few decades ago the party has grown. There are no signs that Children’s Day will diminish. Children are highly valued and given special treatment and consideration. There is no hesitation about supporting events for children and making sure they are secure. It is clear, as well, that the credit and responsibility for all this is vested in the clan (the extended family) and also in the local community. The only thing that can jeopardize the care and concern shown to little children is collapse of the extended family and deterioration of village society.
January 10 is Children’s Day this year, but every day is “children’s day” as far this village is concerned.
One sign that an aspect of village culture is vanishing is when an item stops being functional and becomes an artifact, or when a totally different function is imposed on it.
Log water pipes are a case to consider.
Not long ago forests were close to our village. Trees were large and available, and by available I mean that village people felt free to cut trees they needed. Water for home use came from a well that was dug at an auspicious location near the house. Water for fields came from irrigation canals and ditches. When gravity didn’t work to get water where it was needed for gardens or orchards the water was lifted from a stream either by a water wheel or by muscle power. The distances were short but occasionally bamboo or wooden conduits were needed.
One type of conduit was a log cut lengthwise and hollowed out. These log pipes were common farm items made by hand. Every village must have had several, perhaps scores of them. When rubber, metal and then plastic pipes became available along with motor-driven pumps the log conduits were usually abandoned, left to decay and to be re-discovered as a valuable resource decades later.
There was a long gap between the end of pre-industrial agriculture in North Thailand and the end of the forests. From about the 1850s until the 1950s lumber was Siam’s most important product for export and for foreign exchange. It took another 50 years to actually stop deforestation and get what is left of the forests protected.
In the decade before the year 2000 (using the international calendar) a transition took place that included turning the log pipes into tables. Aspects of this transformation are worth considering. There are insights to be gained about vanishing village culture.
When the forests were depleted and the government really began to clamp down on logging, wood working was still a major source of income for villagers. The money economy of village life depended on supplemental income. Wood workers began to recycle wood from old houses and from abandoned farm equipment.
There was a transitional time that is still going on between subsistence farming and a money economy. The phases can be described this way.
· Pre-mechanical village life was almost wholly spent on projects related to securing food, shelter and clothing. Power came from muscles of animals and people.
· The first phase of utilizing manufactured products and money involved the introduction of tools and textiles that were not locally made and could not always be obtained by barter. In effect, these purchases usually helped villagers produce whatever they needed more efficiently. This enabled them to produce more than they needed for the family to use, more baskets or more posts, for example.
· The second phase into a money economy involved the introduction of machinery. In North Thailand the steam era was largely by-passed; gas powered motors were the first wide-spread mechanization that revolutionized transportation and soon everything else. At this point every clan needed at least one money-earner. Farm animals were on the way out.
· The third phase is the one we are now in around here. Farming is an adjunct aspect of an extended family’s income. Two crops of rice are grown, one for consumption and one for sale. The cash crop can also be onions, garlic, soybeans or corn (maize). In other parts of the country different crops do better. Here in the hill country cash crops are strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower, and many sorts of vegetables and flowers as well as coffee and tea. A minority of family members work full time at agriculture; a majority of adult workers have full-time or part-time jobs in service work, commercial establishments, construction, or as teachers or other government positions.
· The post-agrarian era of village culture and life is not far off. Farms are becoming larger, owners more distant, and the work is far more mechanized.
So what does the conversion of log water pipes into dining room tables tell us about vanishing village culture?
We may gather that these products of the pre-mechanical era are no longer needed. The era of handmade equipment is over. Wooden farm implements are being disposed of or “recycled”. The first to go were ox carts. At one time every family had a cart and animals to pull it. Thai carts were icons of agriculture that differed from region to region. A wheelwright and blacksmith were necessary artisans for every few villages. Plows and pipes are now made of other things and must be bought and brought from far away.
The second thing these recycled water pipes signify is that fresh wood is in short supply. There must be a reason these things from yesteryear have renewed value. The end of forests is what has created a demand for these derelict pieces of wood as well as for stumps and roots of trees cut decades ago. “Junk” wood is now turned into new products.
A long-term observer would report that there was a time recycled farm implements were never used as furniture parts. That innovation involved two major steps: developing a market and shifting designs. Why was this effort necessary? One reason was that furniture makers and wood carvers needed to have a new product-line when freshly cut wood became scarce. Farm-home styles of décor were not an instant hit. The furniture was rough and crude, although that made it attractive in its own way. Farm-home décor falls in-between antique and modern. It is reminiscent of log-cabins and cowboys, but also of Northern Thai village life fast disappearing. (Never mind the fact that in village culture of the past furniture was hardly used at all). Furniture from old farm items (plow handles, ox yokes, fence posts, gates, rice barns, door panels and much more) was a specialty product line that required supportive accessories such as homespun cloth, rough cast eating utensils and stoneware dishes. Not coincidentally, such handmade items were also traditionally produced or could be adapted from items that were made by handcrafters here in the North. Once a whole range of products in the farm-home style was available the line began to take off. As a style it runs the risk of being a fad. Classical styles last, fads fade. But the supply of weathered log pipes and wagon wheels is limited. These products are filling in for the time being. If the log troughs and wagon wheels have to be manufactured to sustain the furniture style the price will rise. The initial attraction of farm-home style furniture being more affordable will be lost.
From a wider perspective these dining tables and lounge chairs made out of obsolete farm implements instead of raw lumber, are a reminder that the forests are gone, which is an environmental fact that has profound implications for the future of village culture. If water supplies change, agriculture changes. Rice farming takes a lot of water. If agriculture changes so does village culture. But if water disappears because the forests are gone (which is a grim possibility) village culture goes with it. Life beyond water piped from reservoirs would not be viable. Villages will not even be retained as commuter residences.
I am afraid that log tables are not only rustic, they are ominous.
Village life is changing. Of course it is. That fact is so much a given that it seems hardly worth remarking about. Nevertheless, I am dedicating a portion of our website this year to investigate aspects of Northern Thai Village Culture before they completely disappear. I confess that I have little nostalgia about these things we see vanishing. A great deal of village life for our ancestors was hard, hand-to-mouth, subsistence living. Things feel better now. Few of our family and neighbors would prefer to revert to the old days and old ways before there was electricity, roads and money (not to mention available public health and education). But there are consequences to what we see coming that are being disregarded as if they are avoidable or hypothetical.
One of the projects (I think of it as a sub-project) is to compare what we have of village life now with what it was like a few generations ago. Those will be our case studies in this largely inductive investigation.
That brings us, on this New Year’s posting, to the IRON.
There are two versions, were there not? One is flat and one was not. The real flat iron is heated on a stove. A person needs a couple of them to keep working. While one is being used and was cooling off, the other was re-heating. The second version needs a built-in source of heat. In the picture accompanying this essay, the irons use charcoal. They are heavy and cantankerous. One can scorch fabric if the iron gets too hot. The heat is unpredictable and the operator has to be constantly alert. Still, they may be the best irons available.
These charcoal fired irons are a cultural case-in-point. There are some things to notice about them.
First, they are made of metal. In “great-grandmother’s time” (say, before World War I) here in North Thailand there was not much in a village that was made of metal. Entire houses could be constructed without a particle of metal. Kitchen-ware was non-metallic. A metal iron had to be obtained from outside the village. It was a major purchase.
Second, it is not an expendable item, but an appliance meant to last a long time. Things that had to be purchased were expected to serve into the foreseeable future. It was not predicted that the iron would ever become scrap or less useful than the day it was bought. Village culture in that era did not actually include the categories of trash or scrap. There was hardly any category for “obsolete” either.
Third, the iron represented a technological advance. In villages around here there was a time before irons. People had only a few items of clothing and if a piece needed to be wrinkle-less it was washed carefully and spread carefully to dry flat. The charcoal iron was a labor-saving device. Saving “labor” is an indicator of advancing socio-economic conditions. It is a time “after” the time when one’s labor (time + energy + skill) was of less consequence than some other aspects of one’s life. The charcoal iron arrived when subsistence living was ending.
Fourth, the appearance of charcoal irons in Northern Thai villages was a sign of cultural diversification and opening of cultural influences. Irons did not appear before there was commerce. Commerce was concomitant with transportation and travel. When five miles was the farthest a person might ever travel in their whole life, it took a long time for cultural influences to spread. By the time “great-grandmother” thought to strategize about how to get a charcoal iron, merchant-peddlers were plying the routes between towns and villages. The money economy had begun to get a grasp on people’s lives. In fact, it is probable that the first charcoal irons in North Thailand were owned by the elite, and then by those who ironed garments for those who worked for the patrons (people in the military or in government service).
These will be the measures we will use when we look at such other vanishing features of village culture as clay pots, wooden plates, herbal medicine and woven mats. What came before that object and what is replacing it? Why is it significant? What conditions are having an impact on the values people hold and the way they live?
A couple of final thoughts about those charcoal irons.
Rural electrification is almost complete here in North Thailand, so why are these irons still being sold at this market at the end of 2014? They have not yet achieved the status of memorabilia or cultural icons. There were both new and used ones on sale. None were actually antique. They are being bought to use and not to show. Their presence in the market shows that electricity is not yet everywhere. It is expected that people will be coming to this market who will carry these irons beyond the end of the electric wires. Somewhere out there, not too far away, are people living in a pre-industrial culture. The frontier of cultural transition is just beyond here. All you need to do is follow whoever buys these irons.
Since the general view is that electricity has come to everybody important (“almost everywhere” is the way it is stated), then it follows there are some people out there who are less than important. Now, we have come beyond a socio-economic discussion to a socio-political one. There are real people out there who buy real charcoal irons because they do not have access to electricity or cannot afford to use it. I suspect they do not have enough money to attract attention. It could be they do not have other things that money can buy here too, like facilitated access to citizenship papers, cultural identity with the majority, and education or other means to upward mobility and movement out of subsistence living.
Those irons tell us things if we think about what they are saying.
On Christmas Day here in Chiang Mai you can go get a driver’s license, go to class at the university, get a spare part for your car, or have your dog vaccinated. In other words, it’s not a holiday. But if you go to a shopping mall there will be a faux Christmas tree several stories tall and Christmas muzak (is that still a word for elevator music?). Big hotels will have Christmas buffets at elevated prices, and churches will have services or will have had them the night before. Christmas is for Christians. For the rest of the population Christmas is a bit of foreign culture that has drifted in and been adapted. But the fit may not be seamless. Here in South East Asia references to snow don’t fit. Eggnog is a mystery, as is wassail and mulled wine. On the other hand, colored lights are pretty. Presents are nice. Festive food is fun. So if any of these happen, great.
Christmas here will not be what it is elsewhere. But the fact that Christmas has “always” been culturally eclectic is our loophole. It can be done OUR WAY, because there is no one way it has to be done. We can create Christmas traditions, and we can accumulate them or dispense with them as circumstances change.
It is rather sad when we meet expatriates here who are depressed because they have failed to include some component of Christmas, without which their whole Christmas is flawed. Not that this is an ex-pat phenomenon; the death of a loved one can deprive Christmas of a critical element. Christmas can be lost wherever you are. Or it can be re-described. We are free to do that.
It has always been that way. Of all the world-wide festivals Christmas is the most fluid. The culture of Christmas is an amalgamation of cultural contributions: Christmas trees from Germany, Santa Claus from Holland, a Christmas crèche from Italy, “Silent Night” from Austria. It is ironic that Christmas is almost universal but not one thing about it is firm. There have been times when Christmas was illegal in Christian lands, including Puritan America. At other times and places observance of Christmas was one indispensible element to identify a real Christian. There are multiple dates for Christmas. The very meaning of Christmas is controversial. Some absolutely essential elements of modern Christmas are newer than railroads. Some are newer than airplanes. Some are religious, others decidedly secular.
Our colleague Bill Yoder has been here in Chiang Mai for 50 Christmases or so. Until recently, for scores of people his annual Christmas open house has been a key ingredient to Christmas in Chiang Mai. It couldn’t be Christmas without roast pig at Bill’s place. This year Bill has been in the hospital for all of Advent. As the days to Christmas dwindle it’s beginning to look doubtful he’ll be back into his Mae Jo home, named “Paradise” (in some language or other) by Christmas. Bill and those scores of people are going to have to do Christmas some other way.
The thing which makes a tradition function effectively is an implied narrative. If there is no story there is no tradition. The best stories can be told in words. But the story may be more elusive than that. Uncle Tom’s Christmas visits or Minnie’s plum puddings are spindles for stacks of stories in our family up to a certain time. Lots of people in our clan back in Illinois have a recollection of Uncle Tom’s visits and Grandma’s Christmas dinners ending with plum pudding aflame with fuel that questioned her devotion to “tea totally”. Now they are memories some of us share, but the tradition is over. Someday the last of those who remember will be gone and the stories will also be forgotten.
So far I have been talking about Christmas traditions in “modern” time. Since Christmas is a religious celebration its story is about “sacred” time. Sacred time is when something holy took place. The only events that are holy are when divinity is involved directly. Religious rites are ritual re-enactments of those holy events. They symbolize the core aspect of the narrative about a divine-human encounter. Those who participate in celebrations are blessed if they intuit how those encounters in sacred time reflect incidents in their own lives.
As long as there is an intersection or at least a coherent parallel between a modern story and a sacred story, they can be said to be related. The connection must be in some way real, either as an intellectual notion or an emotional one or a cultural one.
So what’s going to make it a Christian Christmas here in Chiang Mai?
No one thing, I think. It’s cumulative. The Payap University performance of Saint-Saens Christmas oratorio last week-end, the All Saints service of “Nine Lessons and Carols” next Sunday December 21 at 5 p.m., the family oriented Protestant service at First Thai Church at 7 on Christmas Eve, and the midnight mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral could be events for some of us to contextualize Christmas here, where the largest Christmas trees are really just cone-shaped strings of lights, the best you do for plum pudding is a canned fruitcake from Rim Ping Supermarket, and Skype is the closest you can get to your blood relatives. Add to that some family traditions: a tree in the living room, cinnamon rolls for breakfast, cordial glasses of Cherry Herring and Crème de Menthe (red and green, get it?) … the elements could be anything. Somehow they add up to Christmas. Finally, top it off with a surprise or two. Behold, Christmas!
As long as you can connect the narrative links, the stories will lead you to Christmas as surely as if you were sitting in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City when Pope Francis is wafted in with clouds of incense.
Pramote and I think we can connect the dots between Luke chapter 2, a few of Julie’s Christmas cupcakes, and “Merry Christmas” to you.
“The shepherds were out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night,” a cherubic soprano announced, indicating three little boys holding crooked walking sticks while three more crawled toward them clad in white, covered with fluffy cotton wool.
Winnifred Clayborn Harrington of the Harbor Fort Harringtons leaned toward her son Kevin and smiled. Kevin was trying to be convinced that this act of Christmas Eve piety was going to reassure her about his spiritual welfare, but his mother’s amusement was ambiguous. Her visit to Thailand was all but certain when he had written telling her that he was signing a contract to teach a second year in the Land of Smiles, although he would probably have preferred for her to send the money for him to fly home for Christmas at Harrington Hall, tedious as he would have found it to be tucked securely away from all he loved. Kevin loved his mother, of course, to the extent that Harringtons could love each other. But the fastness and security of Harrington Hall was so entombing. In Thailand he had bloomed like the roses in the King’s palace on Doi Sutape. His mother had not really given him a choice about where he would spend Christmas, however. She had simply sent him her flight plans with the implied instruction to attend to her during her short visit. And why was it so short? Kevin had no time to ponder that question as the congregation lurched to its feet to sing, “Silent night, holy night.” What would his mother want to do next this Christmas Eve? Kevin hadn’t got that far. In his mind the evening ended for her at the church service.
He found out that she had been thinking of an extended evening when she skillfully steered him across the busy riverfront road to a supper club where a jazz band was rendering Christmas music. After appreciating the skill with which the bar tender shook her martini and poured it with a flourish, Winnifred leaned toward Kevin and asked in a conspiratorial tone, “Now where is the girly-boy show?” Kevin gasped in spite of himself. Showtime was the last place in Thailand he had planned to bring his mother. How did she even know about it and why, of all places, was she asking about it? “Ladyboys,” Kevin corrected her as he collected his wits and tried to be evasive. “Ladyboys,” she agreed, “where do we go to see them perform?” “Holy shit!” Kevin expostulated despite himself. His mother seemed mildly amused at his reaction. “Holy night,” she chided, merrily. Ladyboys were not what he would have expected her to be interested in, if he had thought about it, but his mind was reeling. Maybe he could still obfuscate his way into other territory. “Mother, the katoeys are hanging around the city gate looking for danger,” he tried. It didn’t work, “No,” she insisted. “Where is the cabaret show?”
So they were there in the front row when the lights dimmed and the music came on for the opening chorus line at the Showtime Cabaret Revue. It was an impressive spectacle, although Kevin was not thinking about the glittering, feathery dancers and their oiled, sleek companions as they whirled and leaped. He was reeling from the realization that his mother was not here by chance. There was more to her choice of this cabaret show on Christmas Eve than some random surfing the Internet she had done as she planned her trip. She confirmed it during a break when the stage was being set for the Christmas portion of the program. “Which one is Bird?” Winnifred asked, leaning toward Kevin as she stared at the team pushing Santa’s sleigh onto the stage. Instead of answering Kevin gasped, “How do you know?” “Charlotte told me all,” Winnifred replied with simple finality.
Then Winnifred switched into her motherly tone of voice. “Kevindear,” she used the familiar conjoined form of his name rather than “Kevin (pause) Dear” which would have signaled displeasure. She was being motherly and intimate, “Two Christmas dramas this evening are quite enough. It is time I met your Bird in the hand,” she punned. Charlotte had betrayed him; that was all Kevin could think about. She had promised to keep pretending their “thing” was still going on so his mother would not suspect the truth. “I made her tell,” his mother interrupted his inner-rant, determined to get back to the main subject that had brought her all this way from Harbor Fort, Maryland.
The music was belting out “Here Comes Santa Claus” when Winnifred flicked her hand impatiently at the chorus line behaving like lithe and lovely reindeer. “The one in blue,” Kevin pointed. Seeing him point, Bird in blue managed a demure wave and flashed a grin without losing a beat. Winnifred stared intently at the performers for several moments and then took another sip of her Christmas cocktail, a concoction of red tropical fruit juice with Smirnoff vodka topped with green mint leaves frosted with powdered sugar. Then she settled back contentedly with a look of victory spreading over her face.
When the show was over the performers lined up so members of the audience could have pictures taken with them for extra tips. Bird hopped out of the line and jogged over to Kevin and his mother. He had heard all about Kevin’s anxiety over his mother’s visit, and had doubted it was going to be as dreadful as Kevin feared. Bird had been warned to stay out of sight, but when they came to the show Bird knew the play had changed. Bird was probably the most stunning male creature Winnifred had ever seen. He had a smile that would melt iron and eyes that glistened like deep pools. He had covered his sculptured torso with a blue vest spangled with dark blue sequins to match the stripes on his skin tight leotards. Winnifred’s smile dissolved into a smirk. Kevin was immobilized, locked in ineptitude. Bird and Winnifred took over. He gave his lover’s mother a graceful Thai greeting and she wrapped him in a most un-Thai hug and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek. For two people who had never met, they certainly were friendly.
Their holy night continued at a Starbucks near the hotel where she had a suite for the three of them.
At brunch the next day Winnifred finished what she had come for. Following slices of flaming plum pudding served by a chef with a tall white hat bedecked with holly, Winnifred produced two envelopes which she handed to her two sons. “Merry Christmas, Kevindear,” she said. “Merry Christmas, Birdsweet!” Sweet Bird chirped gaily as he waved his ticket to Baltimore and bent over so Winnifred could kiss him again on the cheek.
December 5 is the 87th birthday anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the King of Thailand. In the picture accompanying this essay HM the King is wearing his distinctive symbol of office, his ceremonial robe. This symbol incorporates several strands of tradition in somewhat the same way crowns do in Europe. In fact, there are seven pieces of regalia the King received on his coronation in 1950, but these days it is the robe that every Thai person recognizes, while the rest (including “The Great Crown of Victory”) are rarely used even on major occasions.
Julia Brannan and Yaowalak Bunnag produced a definitive study of “Thai Official Rank Robes (Sua Khrui)”. They describe the history and methods of producing these robes. See www.caringfortextiles.com/site3/wp.../Arts-of-Asia-March-2014.pdf
Brannan and Yaowalak explain that HM the King’s robe “…is constructed of a netted fabric worked with…embroidery and … embellishment on top….” “…the exclusively royal robe with ‘solidly overall’ gold-thread net that can include gold thread or beetle wings, or sequins.” The thread for the net base is made of either gold thread or gold wound around a silk core. For lesser officials the net can be of other metallic thread or of silk alone. The gold net of the robe is made with a special technique called thak ta chun. The method of knotting is taught only in the Thai royal court. The knot looks similar to a common “fisherman’s knot”. It is a loose knot creating a very open mesh. The variation in the size of the loops, density of the honeycomb-like fabric, selection of threads and the skill of the artist could create gossamer or dense cloth. The embroidery of the King’s robe is “solidly overall” meaning that the net is entirely filled in. The resulting robe weighs about five kilograms (11.2 pounds).
During the early reigns of the restored Siamese Kingdom after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 the production, ownership and use of ceremonial robes was strictly controlled. No one could have such a robe without the King’s grace. The robe for the King was produced in the inner court, in a special workshop, supervised by a prince. Then the robe was bestowed in a highly ritualized rite to insure the unbroken sequence of tradition.
As far as can be speculated historically, the style of the robe can be traced back to Persia. There were Persian advisers and experts in rites and rituals in the courts of the Khmer (Cambodian) monarchs in Angkor Thom as well as in Ayutthaya which followed. The role of the Persians was supplemented and then taken over by Brahmin advisers in the 18th century. Brannan and Yaowalak tell us, “The Kings’ robes are very specifically embellished with royal symbols, such as nagas (mythical serpents), Garuda (mythical bird and Vishnu’s mount) and even insignia or monograms.” These latter symbols would specify the monarch for which the robe was made, while the former symbols would link the monarch (and him alone) to the mythical roots of the cultural tradition, and reiterate that he is an incarnation or direct descendant of those who created the universe.
A category of exiting church members has come to my attention in the past few days. It is being called the “dones”. This category is made up of people who are feeling “done” with the church and their role in it. They may have been leaders heavily involved and committed to the church, but they are done with that now. They are also done with any other role in the institutional church and may not even be regular attendees at church services.
In contrast to other withdrawing members, the “dones” have no hard feelings toward the church. In most cases there was no precipitating event that led to their departure. They do not disagree, necessarily, with the church or its theology. They have not developed a new point of view that is more enthusiastic than other people in their church can tolerate; they have not cooled down to the point that they are disgusted with the church and do not want to associate with it any more. They still like the church, or at least what they may call “THE CHURCH” as distinct from the institutional church. They do not consider that their faith has withered or their relationship with God has changed. They have achieved closure with the church.
In most cases their separation from the church is irreversible. They will not be persuaded to return. There is no issue that can be addressed to heal their feelings. Their feelings toward the church as a whole have not been hurt. There is nothing to heal.
In reading hundreds of responses to an Internet article entitled, “The Rise of the Dones” that can be found on www.holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones I think that most of the stories told by “dones” say that they are de-churched for one of two reasons: (a) they are done with the institutional church in order to be unfettered in finding a more authentic form of Christianity, (b) they are done with the institutional church because of being burned out. There are other reasons why active, committed Christians feel “done”.
I am one of the “dones”. Looking back on it I see that my commitment to the church was conditional. I was committed to being a church leader. I was convinced, with much encouragement from community and friends, that I would find that role fulfilling. I prepared for it since about age 16 by being very involved in church work and conscientiously expanding my range of experiences. It was more than a vocation; it was an identity. During the next 50 years my faith grew more mature and my theology did too. When I stopped being in a leadership role my reason for being active in the institutional church ended. I was ready for almost any new leadership role, but the church here in Thailand made it clear I was no longer acceptable. I had broad background as a senior pastor of large churches, evangelist, seminary teacher, missionary, national staff worker and finally as a Christian college administrator. I was not unqualified to change roles and I was available to assist in many ways. But when leadership options ended I no longer fit into any category I was committed to. I was invited to continue as a college administrator, but it was specified I was not to perform any religious functions. I had come out as gay. I was done.
I conform to the category of “done” in that when I chose to distance myself from the institutional church in order to keep from causing them to face issues they are unready to confront (and thereby jeopardizing others), I did so with actual respect for the church. I have positive regard for the church here in Thailand. I know enough of organizational dynamics (having taught that very subject) to understand that the church’s time to face gender diversity has not yet come. I let my former students (now pastors and leaders) know that I was still on call if they wanted me, but the phone never rang. I was disappointed but not surprised. I am neither burned out nor angry. I have a different ministry now, manifesting Christian core values non-confrontationally at the grass-roots (village) level and writing “bridge-building” articles [many can be found on this site]. I am done with the institutional church. I am officially “honorably retired” but my actual status is “done” and I have contentment and closure.
I do miss the pipe organ music.
John is a grocer. In our village he supplies the makings of the evening meal for a fair share of the households. At 7:30 in the morning John goes to a large market beyond the range of people on foot or with bicycles. He buys about 5000 baht ($150) worth of perishable vegetables, meat, confections and a small amount of fruit. He loads this onto his motorcycle side-car in packets and sacks and into his ice chest. He includes sacks of ready to eat lunches as well, because customers looking for lunch and snacks are his first sales.
When he is ready he starts out on a regular route where customers are waiting at usual times. Stop by stop he works his way through 6 villages toward home. During the morning his customers are buying things to eat for lunch. By about 3 he is ready to unload his remaining produce onto a long roadside table in front of his house.
Even before he is finished, customers begin to pedal and walk over to decide what they will fix for supper. A few bring things to sell or trade from their gardens or orchards, but most of what he sells comes from the central market and is bought for cash. This season fish are plentiful. Many households will eat fish twice or more a week. Pork and chicken are other mainstays. Those are almost always added in small amounts to a dish that contains a preponderance of vegetables, either boiled or stir-fried. It only takes a few herbs or spices to turn one set of ingredients into a variety of dishes. As often as possible, a family will dine on something from their own yard or orchard. Pumpkins, melons, jack-fruit, green beans, sweet corn, lemon grass, mangoes and bananas are sometimes just out the back door. [In a blog later this year I will report on “Hunting and Gathering Right at Home”. Throughout 2015 there will be essays on “Thai village life: see it before it disappears”.]
Most families expect to spend about twenty or thirty baht (less than a dollar) cash per person on the night’s meal with enough left over for breakfast. If money is scarce a meal can be cooked for less than that. Bamboo shoots and mushrooms still come from the woods.
Rice is naturally the staple. Most families grow the rice they eat. Steaming the day’s supply of sticky rice or cooking the “pretty” rice is a routine task in every home. Families who stick with traditional Northern Thai steamed, glutinous rice eaten with the fingers, will inevitably have one or another sort of chili-paste which they either make at home or buy.
In our village there are also a couple of stores that sell non-perishable necessities for daily living. [An essay will feature this function of village life in a blog, later.] John’s mobile market does not provide meal ingredients that come in cans or bottles.
A few things are delivered to houses. Most homes have drinking water delivered; a woman brings eggs on demand from her chicken farm in the neighboring village. Ice cream comes by motorcycle, too.
John’s customers do not regularly travel to and from the city or distant work sites. In the city or in towns, people tend to shop in super markets or from the same sort of market that John buys his produce. More often salaried people stop on the way home and buy supper items from cooks who offer pots and pans of a dozen stock dishes they sell in front of their homes. Some villages have enterprising cooks that do this, too, but not our village. John used to supplement his produce with 3 or 4 pots of curry, but he gave it up as not cost effective. In our village about half of the households consist of older people and folks who stay around their homes and farms full-time. They are John’s customers.
John’s roadside table closes by about 7:30. That’s a 12 hour day. Minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht per day (about $10). John’s profit if people are hungry is about that.