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