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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.