Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dreaming of Christmas

In this Buddhist country where I now live, Christmas has become a major holiday, at least for the shoppers.  Even in my large neighborhood mall, where seldom is a Western face seen, the stores are littered with fake trees, colored lights and misspelled displays like the above.  Christmas carols can be heard on the PA systems, beginning in early November, and the only thing missing is a Salvation Army Santa.  I try to be cosmopolitan, but there's just something so wrong with "Jingle Bells" in Thailand.

Last year there was still snow on the ground when we left Seoul on Christmas day after a week's holiday.  The day before, on Christmas Eve,  I had seen some Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells in the crowded shopping center of Myeong-dong, but I assumed that's because a quarter of the Korean population have embraced Christianity.  Here in Thailand they are less than one per cent; missionaries have always traveled an uphill road among the Thais.  In Seoul we saw street corner preachers and even a man on his knees praying while pedestrians swarmed around him.  The snowfall a few days before had been delightful. The possibility of experiencing it had been one of the reasons for our visit, but throwing snow balls failed to resurrect in me the Christmas spirit.

As a parent I tried to recreate the Christmas rituals of my childhood. The bigger the tree (and we had to chop it down ourselves) the better. I accumulated tree ornaments through two marriages (and left them behind in the divorce settlements).  On Christmas eve, just as my father had done with me and my brother, I read my children "The Night Before Christmas."  One holiday in Connecticut, when my brother-in-law's family traveled from Ohio to join us, we were without a copy and had to recreate the story from our collective memory.

My parents loved Christmas.  Every year they put cards received up on the wall and outfitted themselves in red.  When my brother and I were young, we went to bed without a tree and awoke to find a bejeweled fantasy surrounded by mountains of gifts brought by the Santa who had consumed the milk and cookies we'd left for him.  My mother would never let us see it until she'd made coffee and gathered her note pad to record who gave what for future thank you cards.  Our aunts, uncles and cousins on the West Coast combined their presents for us in a large barrel they sent overland weeks before.  In the evening, with the wrapping paper neatly folded and put away for next year, we'd play with our toys in the living room around the TV set where Perry Como would be singing Christmas songs like "O Holy Night" and "Silver Bells."

Bing Crosby's singing of "White Christmas" (seen here from the 1954 movie of that name with George Clooney's aunt Rosemary) is one of many musical triggers that evoke the Christmas spirit for me.  He first sang it in the 1942 film "Holiday Inn."
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
Whose heart cannot be moved by those lines? Well, it might be pretty meaningless to my neighbors here in Bangkok.  "White Christmas" is on every holiday compilation album and all popuar artists have sung it at one time or another, even Boy George and Lady Gaga.

When did it all go bad?  When did the Christmas dream become a nightmare?  It didn't happen with the realization that Santa Claus was only a fairy tale and Rudolph had no red nose.  For years I listened to the songs I loved each December, sent cards to my friends, cut down and decorated the biggest tree that would fit in my house, and bought more presents for my loved ones that I could afford.  I tried to replicate for my four kids the marvelous Christmas I spent at my father's cousin's farm in snow-swept Ohio when I was five just after the war.  They were rich and the tree in the entrance way was two floors' tall.  Or the Christmas when we traveled in a blizzard through Pennsylvania to my wife's brother's house in Cleveland.  Those Christmas dreams are sustained by the presence of children and the promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards all.

What turned me ultimately into a bah humbugger was the ever increasing necessity for more and costlier presents and the fear that they would never be good enough to please the recipient. Nothing changed, since Christmas has long been an exercise in consumerism.  I grew up and became less of a dreamer.  Snow was a paradoxical consequence of global warming and probably carried noxious chemicals or even radioactive particles.  We tried making rather than buying gifts, and that wasn't appreciated by the kids.  With friends in California from Denmark we celebrated their traditions of dancing around a tree lit with live candles followed by the drinking of aquavit and the eating of herring (this is the Christmas my two youngest kids will dream about and try to recreate some day).  But as the shopping season drew near ever year I would retreat into my shell and leave the decorating, buying and cooking to others.  It didn't go over very well.

The Christmas spirit didn't totally die for me, it just got less parochial.  In 2005 I celebrated a cold, drizzly Christmas in an Anglican church in north London, in 2007 it was in a Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu, India.  The world now owns Christmas, even if it has lost its moorings in the birth of Jesus.  Back in the U.S. the Tea Party claims there is a war on Christmas because many have replaced "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays."  Some in the religious right have always thought Santa a dangerous pagan.

Pagan Pattaya is all dolled up for the holidays with decorated trees and Christmas messages, many of them in Russian and Arabic.  In 2008 I spent my second Christmas there surrounded by poinsettia plants (not a native species) and naked Santas.  In the hotels there and in the supermalls of Bangkok there are trees taller than the tallest redwoods back in California and like the sequoia sempervirens they will last almost forever. I've been taking pictures of Christmas trees and decorations this year and this is perhaps why it seems a more popular holiday than ever before.  My wife growing up in a small village in Phayao only knew about Christmas because her aunt's boyfriend from Belgium decorated a tree and handed out presents to all the children.  Today, however, the internet and social networks have made it a -- if not THE -- universal holiday (sorry Tea Party folks, I have yet in my travels to see a creche with a baby Jesus and mama Mary outside of Christian precincts).

Nan and I have Santa hats and a reusable tree to which I added this year a string of colored lights.  There's a big tree in the condo lobby.  I have 80 songs in my iTunes in a Christmas folder and recently added "A Motown Christmas" and "Phil Spector's Christmas Album," two classics. Fortunately Nan has tomorrow off from work so we're planning to pick out presents for each other at the mall (nothing closes here on Dec. 25th) and have a holiday meal, perhaps a Japanese buffet.  I haven't sent any Christmas cards since I moved to Thailand since mail in the age of email and the internet is pass√©.  But I've filled my Facebook timeline with YouTube videos of my favorite Christmas songs along with the photos I've taken for the Christmas in Bangkok album.  There are a lot of good wishes swirling around the Net.  And if it weren't for the current insurrection in Bangkok, I might assure everyone of peace on earth and goodwill toward all.  It's only a hope now in Thailand.

Bah humbuggery, of course, coexists with a nostalgia for the Christmases in our (often false) memory.  The dream of Christmas promises much but rarely delivers, and disappointment is the seedbed of cynicism. The holidays are a time of sadness and even suicide.  My son Luke was as sentimental as me but he dreaded the Christmas season which made his chemical dependencies so much more difficult to control.  Fortunately my perennial sadness is now offset by a wonderful life. This song always puts me in the Christmas spirit wherever I am.


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