“What does Christmas mean to you?” I was asked to talk about this at a Christmas gathering last week. I decided to tell about the Christmas when the meaning changed most for me.
It was the week before Christmas 1965, my first Christmas in Thailand as a Presbyterian missionary. The Rev. Pisnu Arkkapin and I were appointed to be the faculty Christmas tour leaders for ten first year students of the Thailand Theological Seminary. Although the group was young and green, they were practiced and ready to do a one act play based on the story of Jesus healing the man born blind, and they were ready to sing carols.
Our first stop was a rural village in Lampang Province where a Christian physician had hopes of planting a church, a daughter of the mother church in Lampang. The plan was for our students to present their Christmas program on the elevated front porch of a small country house. There was no electricity yet, so lighting was by pressurized gas lamps (called “Lords of the Storm” as I remember). When it grew dark, villagers began to gather in the yard. Students engaged the children in games and singing. And then came the play. It got well under way. I was “back stage” in the living area of the house making myself useful and out of sight when rocks landed on the roof. Tiles broke over my head and created a disturbance. The culprits had been drinking home-made whiskey, we were told, and objected to Christians coming to their village. Their temporary interruption of the play was the main memory any of us had about our visit to Lampang.
The next night we were aboard a third-class local train for the long trip to Bangkok. The train was crowded. Even so, we had a roped-off few seats in the back end of the dining car. After the food service ended and customers were gone the students began to sing Christmas carols. Soon the car filled with smoke from burning chili peppers. Anyone who has experienced it (as just about everyone with any experience of Thai cooking has) recognizes the smell immediately and knows that escape is the best option and coughing is inevitable. Ajan Pisnu told me that the cooks were displeased with our singing, or had been put up to it by someone. The idea of Christians spreading Christmas around was unwelcome.
The night after that was Christmas Eve. Our venue was the oldest Thai (Presbyterian) Church in the country, Samray Church on the banks of the Chaopraya River in Bangkok. Christmas festivities were planned to begin at sunset with a big dinner, a church service, and then a program of singing and plays. By now I was beginning to gather that those two activities were essential for a Thai Christmas celebration as far as the young people were concerned. Christmas for youth groups would be sadly lacking if the groups could not sing and put on a play. In fact, three or four Samray Church youth groups sang and then set off to serenade. These serenading groups were called “Angel Choirs.” It was near midnight before our turn came. In addition to the dwindling number of Christians, the church yard was still crowded with people who came for the free food and entertainment provided once a year. Hardly anybody paid attention to our drama. It was the least important aspect of the evening for most of the crowd who were waiting for a fire-works display at midnight and Christmas presents. Then we, too, set off to serenade seminary benefactors scattered around Bangkok. In every case we arrived hours after we were scheduled to have been there. People were gracious, and not disappointed when our serenade was cut to one carol and “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” At only one place were we set upon by dogs, but Ajan Pisnu assured me neighbors had not put them up to it.
So I came to Christmas morning with a radical new perspective about what Christmas means. Aside from all the memories I had grown up with, I now realized that here in Thailand, where Christians are barely 1% of the population, Christmas is inserted into a non-Christian setting. Every Christmas activity in this environment is an evangelistic undertaking. Every excursion by “angelic” youth choirs is also an intrusion into a potentially apathetic or hostile zone. In the background is always the sense that Christmas is radical.
Half a century later, Christmas has been essentially domesticated. No drunken youths throw stones at groups singing Christmas carols in shopping malls. Burning chili peppers really would be just incidental to food preparation. The morning I typed this, a Buddhist abbot asked if he could bring a group of children to our house on Christmas morning. But in this environment Christmas is still more radical than I ever dreamed back home in central Illinois in the middle of the USA as the Eisenhower era was ending.
The picture accompanying this blog essay is from the “essentially domesticated” Christmas celebration at Payap University in 2015, exactly 50 years after the incidents I am recalling.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.