It's not my tradition, but I gladly accompanied Marcus to the Service of Christmas Carols and Readings at Christ Church on Convent Road in Bangkok last night. The Anglican church, which bore no trace of its location in Thailand, was filled with what I assumed were mostly British adults and children and a sprinkling of Indians who probably carried English passports. It was a bit of Old Blighty in the heart of Asian darkness bearing witness to the upcoming birth of the Christ child with songs and stories from scripture. Two years ago I spent Christmas in London, and, aside from the fog and freezing rain, it was same same.
The service began with a candle-lit procession by the choir and a solitary voice singing "Once in Royal David's City." Marcus, raised by atheists in a socialist family, told me this always brought tears to his eyes. Between familiar readings from the New Testament the choir and congregation sang "The Holly and the Ivy," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Hark the Herald," "We Three Kings" (they were really Tibetan lamas, whispered Marcus), and some songs unfamiliar to me. Afterwards we walked outside with our candles and sang under the stars and brights lights of Bangkok. Several speakers during the service reflected on the move in the stories of the birth of Jesus from watching and waiting to arrival and fulfillment. I was struck by the emphasis on Jesus as God in human form rather than the message he preached, the Gospel of love for others. How different from Buddhism where the teaching of the Dhamma seems more important than the messenger, the Awakened One, the Buddha who realized the truth of who we are.
Marcus and I of course disagreed on this over our several helpings of mulled wine and mince pies in the church hall after the service. His spiritual trajectory has taken him from communism to Buddhism with a Mahayana slant that he picked up from his appreciation of Pure Land Buddhism in a Korean context. Now he is drawn to faith in a figure like the Bodhisattva, a faith that transcends intellectual analysis and the often elitist disdain for the religion of common people. While I can appreciate devotion in a Buddhist and Hindu perspective, I am unable to accept the Christ story at face value. It's all metaphorical I argued. The divine, if there is such a thing, is within all of us. While not disagreeing with me, Marcus, his eyes bright from the rare taste of wine (he strictly observes the precepts), said he could easily return to the Christian faith he never really had. As we stood by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, I thought about the faith community I had left back in Santa Cruz and how the language and stories we shared had bound us together in mutual love and an appreciation for the liberating message of Jesus (totally distorted by the myopia of conservative and fundamentalist Christians).
While I have not completely banished the "Bah! Humbug!" attitude that comes over me each December, I do miss the ghosts of Christmas past: cutting down the tree and decorating it with heirlooms, walking house to house singing carols with a group of friends, reading "The Night Before Christmas" to my kids, sitting before an open fire listening to Frank Sinatra sing, finding it hard to sleep the night before and waking way before dawn to open presents, sitting satiated amidst a blizzard of discarded wrapping paper, showing the new toys to my friends, taking a Christmas day hike in the redwoods. I do not miss: the pressure to buy an ever bigger selection of presents as if size reflected love. Over the years, something inside me shut down; as if to preserve the delicious memories of Christmas Past I had to resist the commercial and aquisitive impulses of the holiday season. There were never enough presents and they were never good enough. But by abandoning the dirty reality of Xmas Present, I began to lose the dream-enhanced memories of what was. Under the impact of mulled wine and mine pies last night, I got a little of that back.
I could write this morning about about Abhisit, Thailand's new prime minister, and the much debated hope that his reign will ease the political and economic crisis here. Or I could speak of my trip to Dusit Zoo on a quiet day last week with a lovely woman unlike any I have met here. I could talk about how my own apartment is becoming a zoo, with the cockroaches thumbing their nose at me the day after the room was sprayed with poison, and about how the mosquitoes fly effortlessly up to my 10th floor retreat, a feat my friends find unbelievable. Or I might say something about the DVD screeners for Academy voters that have appeared on the internet and how much I loved "Frost/Nixon." I could describe the festive atmosphere outside the recent red shirt rally in National Stadium and show photos of the enterprising merchants I took. I have notes for a few blogs in readiness, one on happiness and another on "Nail Biters and Nose Pickers" that some might find disturbing. Equally disturbing are the instant friends from online who think I should give them money because I have it; seduction and support do not always go hand in hand. Perhaps my readers would be interested in knowing that I bought cheap new glasses and an expensive hand-held CyberDict 11 that may possibly help me translate from Thai to English. Add to this outlay of cash, a bag of meds to keep asthma, indigestion and high cholesterol at bay, purchased from a medical supermarket at discount without prescription across from Sirirat Hospital. There are only a couple of shopping days left until Christmas but I have over two weeks of holiday to go before my classes resume at Mahachula. The beaches of Thailand's islands are tempting me. The sand should be relatively free of tourists put off by the recent troubles.
What I really want to say, though, is Merry Christmas to my family, friends and readers in distant places. I'm sorry I'm not there to hug you, tell stories and sing songs with you. To all those I have wronged, I'm sorry. To my children, some of whom have not written in months: I love you and miss you very much. I am only just a click away on the internet, in virtual spirit if not in presence. There really can be "peace on earth and good well to all," if only in our hearts.
This, then, is my metta Christmas greeting to all of you (including the homeless lady who sleeps on the bus bench near my apartment building).