And now for something familiar: a traditional Nativity scene, complete with Mary and Joseph in traditional dress and the baby Jesus grinning in his sleep in a manger. All of this watched over by adoring cows and befuddled shepherds.
On the surface it looks like something a cartoonist whipped out in a few distracted minutes to respond to the season. But those familiar with news media in Thailand recognize the style as that of one of Thailand’s best known editorial cartoonists of the past several decades. He was better known for his subtle barbs than nuanced gentleness. Sentimentality was not his forte. What could have inspired him to give us a Christmas card? Perhaps that is not important.
Let’s consider context. Here in Thailand pastel sentimentality is the Christian Christmas preference. Our “lively and spirited” Christmas celebration this past weekend at Payap University was presided over by a serene background picture of a more romantic nature. I think it is true that if nature is allowed to run its course, a Thai festival will be festive rather than serene. Only those in the front rows, even at funerals, are uniformly quiet. A bigger crowd will be attracted to a lively event than a contemplative one. Thought-provoking movies disappear from theaters more quickly than action-packed ones.
Sanuk everyone will tell you, is the key to pleasing a crowd in Thailand. Sanuk has a broader scope of meaning than any single term in English can convey, although it’s supposed to be translated “fun”. My favorite dictionary lists the following meanings of สนุก entertaining, enjoyable, gay, amusing, cheerful. A traffic accident will draw a crowd and no one will admit that it is fun or include it in a list of sanuk events, but they come to see the event unfold. A bus breakdown is not sanuk until the stranded passengers turn it into a picnic.
Our Christmas celebration at the university would not have been inherently sanuk without the enjoyable, amusing costumes and festivities before and after the worship service that bisected the lively parts. Dr. Esther Wakeman’s Christmas sermon on love was rescued from becoming a tedious interruption by her preaching in a way that was entertaining. She related to the congregation, most of whom were not Christian, by referring to aspects of shared community life.
That is also what the Thai cartoonist did. His characters were familiar. The Nativity was automatically re-positioned right into the midst of Thai culture. The characters hovering in the background are where the action is. They are arrested in motion. They have 7 expressions of amusement, bemusement, and curiosity. They are both like and unlike stereotypical Thai farmers; but they are familiar. Thai people looking at the cartoon identify with the shepherds, and recognize the cows. They have a look about them that makes us expect to see them again, more shaven perhaps, in some future cartoon.
And that’s the amazing thing. This is acculturated. It inhabits Thailand. It is a cartoon, so it is sanuk. It is by this identifiable Thai cartoonist, so it is Thai. It is an illustration of the Nativity narrative, to be sure, but we (particularly if we are Thai) relate to the observers in the scene, the ones looking on; their scope of attitudes catches our attention and reflects our attitudes.
This strikes me as a profoundly accurate theological point of view. We are drawn to Nativity celebrations as observers and given the task of forming our opinion about the scene before us.
So, from Thailand, Merry Christmas wherever you are. May your Christmas celebration be sanuk and your connection to the Nativity meaningful
Silinart Chumsri was a first year seminary student in the Thailand Theological Seminary (TTS), from Nakhon Pathom, when I met her in August 1965. She was a leader in her class of ten students. She was more mature and determined than most of her class mates. In fact, she was on a dual track toward a career in education as an alum of Witialai Kru (the Teachers College) as well as a theological education student leading to church work.
With her academic background Dr. E. John Hamlin, principal of the seminary, chose her as one of two students to try to get a joint degree program started with Chiang Mai University (CMU). Eventually, selected TTS students were allowed to attend classes at CMU and their teachers offered a personal evaluation of their achievement, but they were not given CMU grades or credits. Dr. Hamlin’s idea was to gain national recognition for TTS students’ accomplishments, as their degrees were already being accepted internationally through accreditation of TTS degree programs by the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology. During her fourth year at TTS Silinart was posted to Huay Kaew Church on the edge of the CMU campus to serve as student pastor; I was installed as pastor of the church in order to be her field education supervisor. It was my first official role as pastor, but Silinart did the real pastoral work.
By the time Silinart was ready to graduate there was major progress toward the establishment of Payap College, which would solve the problems of student recognition that Dr. Hamlin had been trying to work out with CMU. Ajan Silinart began her career as an educator at the Christian school in Fang and then became head of Vichianari School in Lampang. As late as 1979-80 she was still a candidate for a master’s degree at TTS (by then renamed the McGilvary Faculty of Theology of Payap College). She had written her thesis but then dropped the project when her responsibilities increased and it became apparent that a master’s degree in theology would not be applicable to her position as head of a school.
For the next decade Ajan Silinart was head of the Women’s Department of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) where she was tireless in advocating feminist points of view in opposition to the overwhelming male dominance of the church at all levels. There were a few women in church leadership, including Ajan Prakai Nontawasee who was the first woman to hold national office in the CCT. When women became eligible for ordination, Ajan Prakai and Silinart were ordained; (with Ajan Moree and Dr. Kamol Arayaprateep) they were the first, as I remember it. The transformation of church structure in the 1990s led to the Women’s Department being downgraded into a Christian Home and Family division, indicating a bias about “where women belonged” that infuriated Ajan Silinart and her colleagues, and also meaning that there was no longer a designated way for women’s particular issues to be raised and advocated.
At that point, Ajan Silinart was recruited to help with the Christian School in Udorn and with churches in the Isan area of the country. She finished her professional career doing this.
Meanwhile she was still an advocate of improved circumstances for women and for retired church workers, especially those who, like herself, were unmarried and had little or no family support. She was a fearless pioneer and prophetic voice right up to the point that declining health began to take its toll. I heard not long ago that she died and her funeral was held back home in Nakhon Pathom.
Robin could not go home for Christmas. He could never go home again. He no longer had a home. The morning he had been taken from his family’s Council Housing flat to platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross station was the last time he saw his family. His father had made it quite clear that if Robin persisted in accepting the absurd invitation to go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry he was never to try to contact any members of the family again, nor was he to let their neighbors know where he was going and especially what he was “trying to become”.
“But I am a Wizard!” he protested. He had been sure about it ever since his letter from Hogwarts came on his 11th birthday. “It’s who I am. I didn’t choose to be this way. I am not deliberately trying to shame the family. I’d quit if I could.”
His father refrained, this time, from slapping him for his cheek. But his tone was threatening when he sneered, “I do not want to hear another word out of your filthy mouth, you ungrateful … [censored].”
This was the last row Robin had had with his father and, measured against earlier ones beginning on his birthday on the Ides of March, it was icy and formal. Still, it shut off Robin’s last hope of reconciliation. He was frozen out of the family. There was nothing left to do but leave.
There was no doubt that Robin Astor Havorford was endowed with magic. It fairly oozed out of his fingertips and blazed in his brilliant blue eyes. But that did not help him like it. After nearly a year at Hogwarts Robin had contemplated running away to live on his own as he knew other boys had done. He knew one or two of them and that is what had dissuaded him. Their lives were wretched. What they had to do in order to survive Robin would have quickly found impossible, and he knew it. So, he could not go back home and he could not find the courage to take to the streets. Besides, he was in Hogwarts and that was a very long way from London where the only streets he knew were.
Following the Battle of Hogwarts in which legendary Harry Potter had defeated Lord Voldemort in single combat, relations between magical people and Muggles had improved. In fact, Robin’s whole class had been born several years after that, and it was not part of their shared experience. Hogwarts students of all types went back home for Christmas with their families. So as Christmas came again there were only a handful of students who were not leaving Hogwarts for the holidays. Not a single Hufflepuff was going to keep Robin company in the Hufflepuff common room behind the vinegar barrels.
After collecting papers at the end of Enchantment class Professor Verbal dismissed his students with a jolly, “Merry, merry Christmas!” But as they were rising he added, “A word, Mr. Havorford, if you please.”
“I wonder if you would consider a change of plans for Christmas. I am told you have signed to remain here, but if it is not too much of an imposition I’d appreciate your accompanying Victor Okonjo and me to Attlee Castle for Christmas. Victor’s family has gone back to Nigeria and it’s too far for him to join them, so I have invited him to come home with me. I imagine it would be more comfortable for him to have a Hogwarts colleague.”
Taking Robin’s silence for agreement, Verbal continued, “You’ll take the Hogwarts Christmas Express. I’ll see you there.”
At King’s Cross station, Victor and Robin were surprised to be met by a driver dressed in livery and then they were led to a vintage Bentley Continental Flying Spur for a luxurious ride north. Robin’s family had never owned a car, nor had Victor’s. Until they were getting into the Bentley Robin had never thought about Virgil Verbal’s life outside Hogwarts. The teacher had blended into the Hogwarts scene and hardly seemed entitled to another lifestyle. One aspect of a person’s identity often overwhelms other possibilities that way.
The driver, whose name was Gerald, took the A-12 north past Ipswich to Lowestoft, and then took a small road to Attlee Castle. They arrived after dark, which made entry into the Anglo-Saxon castle less dramatic than it would have been earlier in the day.
Gerald handed Robin and Victor over to the Attlee house elf, Ranklin. House elves keep Hogwarts in running order, but seldom appear in view. Neither Robin nor Victor had ever seen an elf. Robin was startled to be greeted by a naked, hairy being barely three feet tall with large ears and a bulbous nose.
“Greetings, young masters,” Ranklin croaked, his voice divulging that he was far older than he looked. Just recently Ranklin had learned of the illustrious lineage he shared with elves and dwarfs, going back to Roman gods. After that, he declined to be burdened with wearing servants’ rags and, except for rare occasions, shunned either the starched black and white attire of a butler or the silk toga he had had specially made for his liberation celebration. Liberated though he was, Ranklin was devoted to Attlee Castle and its residents, whom he now thought he outranked, noble as they were.
The next morning, the day before Christmas, Ranklin came to fetch Robin and Victor. “Master would like you to join him for breakfast in the solarium.”
As the boys followed the ambling elf, it was clear that Attlee Castle was both modest and ancient. It had been built as protection against Viking raiders, so it was strong rather than elegant in any sense. Robin thought it looked like a small version of the Tower of London. Over the years two wings had been added to accommodate Attlees, Verbals and their frequent guests with more comfortable quarters.
“Today we will go Christmas shopping,” The Lord Verbal said by way of greeting his students. “I hope you slept well. Your tower room was the bridal chamber for the first Lord Verbal and long before that it was the prison for a few days for Viking chief Harald the Horrible, who unwisely tried to pillage the countryside without reckoning on our having acquired certain ‘extra abilities’.” Noticing the boys’ gaunt, amazed expressions, he asked, “You did sleep well, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes!” the two quickly responded.
“I have no money,” Robin confessed as he remembered the plan for the day.
“Nor do I,” said Victor, “except a few Knuts and one Galleon,” which he couldn’t imagine spending around Suffolk.
Verbal chuckled. “You will see how accommodating people are here along the North Sea.” Looking at the boys over his handful of scone and strawberry jam, the professor informed them, “Robin will buy something for a very old woman, and you, Victor, will buy something for ME!” Before the boys could repeat their protest, Verbal said, “I will loan you the money for these things and you can pay me back at some future date in Pounds, Euros, or Galleons.”
As they were cruising along in a silver Rolls Royce that Robin began to suspect was not just painted silver, he asked, “Who is the old woman I am to buy a present for?”
“Ah, that is a long story I will let her tell you, but I will suggest to you she adores Dutch chocolate covered cherries.”
After that, Robin’s shopping was easy. He also found a soft wool scarf for Victor, who was constantly shivering despite his repeated English winters. Finding his little loan of a few pounds scarcely depleted by these two purchases he decided to get some chocolate for Gerald and Ranklin as well as Professor Verbal. Even then, his wallet was only a little lighter. Victor had the same experience.
Meanwhile, Gerald and Verbal were off gathering Christmas crackers and festive decorations for the Yuletide table.
As dusk came, Virgil bundled the boys back into the Rolls and took them to a cathedral several miles from the castle. On the way Victor commented, “I didn’t know wizards went for this sort of thing.”
The professor winked conspiratorially, “Why, some of the greatest wizards can be found wearing surplices and copes … white under-robes and colorful capes,” he explained.
The event on Christmas Eve was “Nine Lessons and Carols”, an English tradition that “should always precede the coming of Father Christmas,” Victor enthusiastically asserted.
The Lord Verbal was recognized at the cathedral doors and so he and the boys were ushered to a pew of honor which provided everyone the chance to see them process, but also gave them the best seats to view the choirs and clergy.
At one point Robin leaned over to whisper to Virgil, “Is that man the Chief Warlock?” The man certainly seemed awesome enough to be a great Wizard. But Virgil identified him as a mere Muggle bishop.
After the candles and incense, the pipe organ and trumpets, the boys’ choir and the massed choir, as they were leaving through a tower where change ringing was regaling the countryside, Virgil confided, “Really, lads, our wizards could do with a bit of pageantry like this, don’t you agree?”
Ranklin did not need to arouse the boys the next morning. They were awakened by aromas flooding the castle, and by the thought of Christmas.
Clearly the guest list was expanded as Robin and Victor realized when they emerged into the great hall wearing new jeans and jumpers that had been laid out for them by unseen hands in the night. The great hall was small by Hogwarts standards, although it had a fireplace large enough to roast an ox and tall narrow stained glass windows with occult patterns that seemed to melt into different shapes as the sun passed by. The hall had been transformed from its somber stone with oaken trim into a holiday venue. A round table in the center would seat twenty when dinner was served. Meanwhile, early guests were making do with tidbits and heated drink. A trio of musicians strolled about playing an instrument with several strings, a pipe apparently carved out of a wooden vegetable, and a one-headed drum with a rattle and bell.
The boys felt shy among strangers, none of whom seemed close to their age except a small person of indeterminate age, sex, and ethnicity, who zoomed hither and yon engaging everyone in snippets of conversation, apparently unconcerned about continuity.
After a while, Ranklin, for once clad discreetly in a large wrap-around apron, escorted an aged woman adorned (rather than simply “dressed”) in a violet velvet gown spangled with glittering silver stars set with colorful jewels. She wore a matching turban on the side of which perched a small gold bird with sapphire eyes and rubies on its breast, which tended to preen itself when no one was looking. She carried a staff that served as a walking stick and resembled a scepter. As if on signal, Lord Virgil emerged from his chambers and glided over to her as she was being seated on a gilded bench with cushions and a bit of canopy overhead.
“Welcome, Dame Agatha and merry Christmas,” Virgil called as he got close enough to bestow a kiss on her cheek and get one in return.
Dinner was served very soon after that.
Poppers popped and everyone retrieved a party hat. Then a parade of waiters recruited from young, out-of-work fishermen from Lowestoft, carried in a boar’s head (or facsimile), a large roast goose, tureens of potatoes and parsnips, green, yellow and red vegetables, mountainous molded salads, purple wine and much more.
Conversation was limited to those seated on either side, and tended to take second place to the feast. Only after the flaming pudding and final round of beverages, when the waiters retired to their own repast in Gerald’s decorated garage, did the party resume its native informality.
For starters, Lord Virgil proposed a toast to Dame Agatha Vegford-Freelander Astor, “the most fearless witch in Suffolk and all of Anglo-Saxon England!” The guests were on their feet instantly raising glasses and nodding toward the grand dame. In response to their cheers, she hoisted her staff and discharged a shower of confetti and streamers.
By now it was clear the guests were composed of witches and wizards with any stray Muggles being totally initiated, as the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy had been gradually relaxed.
Games began as well as a type of dancing, never seen elsewhere, that must have come from about the time of Harald the Horrible’s capture and disposition.
Under cover of the festivities, Lord Verbal spirited Robin into a side room where he was surprised to find Dame Agatha waiting alone beside a small table that held two wrapped gifts, one which Robin recognized as his box of Dutch chocolate covered cherries. So, Robin realized, this venerable woman was to be the recipient and this meeting was what Professor Verbal’s invitation to Attlee Castle had been all about. He had little time to ponder this plot.
Addressing Dame Agatha, Verbal introduced Robin, “This is Robin Astor Havorford, whom we were discussing.”
“How do you do, Robin? Come sit by me here,” the old woman patted the armrest of a chair beside her, and added, “We will be fine, Virgil,” dismissing him.
“Tell me about yourself,” she ordered.
“There is not much to tell,” Robin responded. In his agitation, his Cockney accent showed itself. Robin heard it and reddened.
“I know more about you than you might imagine,” Dame Agatha confessed, “but I would like to hear it from you.”
Bracing his feet on the floor, Robin launched himself into the deep. “I am a wizard,” he admitted, only slightly emboldened by the knowledge that Dame Agatha was “the most fearless witch in Suffolk and all Anglo-Saxon England.” “I am the only wizard in our family, ever,” he added.
“You are wrong about that,” Dame Agatha filled in a moment’s hesitation. “But tell me how you first knew you were empowered with magic.”
“I did not know what caused strange things to happen, nor did anyone suggest they were not deliberate acts of a delinquent,” Robin quoted his teacher’s conclusions, often reported to his parents. “They would never believe me when I denied trying to do those things, and they didn’t listen when I said I hadn’t meant to do them. Then on my eleventh birthday the letter from Hogwarts was dropped on me by an owl. Then I understood. When I showed the letter to my father he got mad. He said things I cannot repeat.”
“I have heard them all before, I’m sure,” Dame Agatha conceded.
Robin took her nod to mean “continue”, so he did. “I got another letter when I had not replied to the first one. And then a young woman I had seen a few times in the neighborhood spoke to me on my way to our flat and told me she’d come on September first to take me to the train. ‘What about the school supplies, the wand an’ stuff?’ I asked. ‘It’s taken care of,’ she said. And so I went to Hogwarts.”
“Was your family happy about that?” Dame Agatha asked, showing great gentleness that hinted she already knew the answer.
“We fought about it many times,” Robin admitted, holding back a sob.
She let him recover and then persisted, “How do you feel about Hogwarts now?”
“I was sorted into Hufflepuff.”
“As was I, a century ago.” It was unclear if she was jesting about the date or telling the plain truth. “Go on,” she coaxed.
“I do not want to be a magician, a wizard, or anything!” Robin retorted. “I want to be normal! I want to be cured!” After a moment, “I want a family.”
Dame Agatha straightened herself minimally. “Now it is my turn to tell my story,” she said.
“I have no memory of my mother or father,” Dame Agatha began. “There was a war going on. There is usually a war, it seems. But this one surrounded me. I supposed, after that, I was an orphan. My family never appeared and I could remember nothing before the war. All my life before that was a blank. I managed to survive by theft and larceny. Does this surprise you? The one thing I wanted most was the thing I had least, family. Of that I had naught and nary. I had strangeness, however. Strange things happened to those who proposed to abuse me, little waif that I was. At age 10 I was the size of Ranklin, but hairless and skinny. I had no family, no roots and no history. I had never been to school longer than a few days. I had cunning, speed and stealth, but I had no future, nothing but a very narrow, unpleasant present. I had no days, nothing as long as that, only moments at a time. But into that brevity an owl came one day bearing a letter all sealed and lovely, which I could not read. You know what it said. They all say the same thing. But I had no more use for the letter than I had for any memory of my past. I needed meals not mail. Not a week later the strangest woman I have ever seen stepped out of a shadow and pulled me into an alley between two buildings. Her hold was frightfully strong and she called me by name. ‘Aggie,’ she said, snappy and demanding. ‘We’re going to eat,’ she said. That got my attention. ‘Now you can run or eat. Decide,’ she said. I decided, ‘why run when you can eat … if she’s telling the truth.’ She was. We ate and then one thing led to another and in a couple of weeks I was on the train to Hogwarts. I was intending to find out what I could steal and then get away. But Hogwarts is not a place you can steal from and get away. My stealing came to a sudden end, as you can imagine.
“It was there I met Edward Astor. He was an exceptional wizard, two years ahead of me. Ah, the stories I could tell you about our walks around the lake, into Hogsmeade, adventures.” She seemed lost in a dream for a moment, then snapped out of it. “He was no good at Quidditch. But he made up for it in … in other ways.” Her pale cheeks flushed. Robin pretended not to notice. “We were married, of course. At first it seemed impossible, he being Sir Edward Astor from a noble, landed family, until we found out who my great grandparents had been. Minor nobles, but noble at least, with a coat of arms and all. They had thrown out their second son, my father, when he was found out to be magical. Wizards were not allowed. I later learned my father and mother had been killed in the Yorkshire Elvish Uprising.”
She paused and asked, “Have you ever wondered about your middle name, Astor?”
“Your great grandmother was my husband’s sister. Back in her time witchcraft and wizardry were horrible crimes. Any hint of such would cause scandal and exile. People’s names were erased from ledgers and forgotten. Only your mother did remember that somebody back up the line was named Astor and she liked the sound of it. Fortunately. That’s how we found you.”
“Then you are my great-great aunt,” Robin gasped, counting on his fingers.
“After a fashion. My husband was your great-great uncle. But the main thing is we had but one son, who was killed in the war. Not Grindelwald’s war or Voldermort’s war, Hitler’s war. There are a few nieces and nephews but none to my liking and none magical. You are the first wizard in three generations, since Effring Astor, your mother’s mother’s mother. Do you know what I am about to propose?”
“I dare not guess.”
“Clever lad. Well, caution first. I propose we get to know one another. As I am alone these many years, and you are newly disinherited, perhaps we can become family, one quite old and one very young. What do you think of that?”
“Intelligent, too. We can try it out and see if it fits.”
After that the Dutch chocolate covered cherries seemed trivial, but Dame Agatha was delighted, and Robin was enthralled with a dress robe that was the envy of Hufflepuff and Hogwarts.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.