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