I confess that part of the baggage I brought with me to Thailand at the beginning of December was this fantasy that alone in Thailand, away from the commercialism of the holidays in America, I would somehow find the true meaning of Christmas.
I woke up at the guest house along the Ping River in Chiang Mai on Christmas Eve to discover that the temperature had plummeted to a “chilly” 65 degrees during the night. All the Thais were whining about how cold it was. I just shook my head.
I had more important things to do. This was the day I had been looking forward to. This was the day on which I was to gain enlightenment as it were, the day I would discover the true meaning of Christmas.
I walked through the guest house garden to the open air dining area to be greeted by a recording of Elvis Presley singing “Blue, Blue Christmas” followed by “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” “The First Noel,” “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Joy to the World.” It was an inn that catered to Americans and Europeans, so it was understandable that an establishment run by Buddhists would be playing Christmas music.
But then I remembered my visit to the Airport Plaza the day before – a mall similar to Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue – where a giant Christmas tree towered up to the ceiling in the mall’s five story atrium and Christmas music played on the shopping centers loud speakers.
The Thais have discovered that Christmastime is good for business. Trees with lights, inflated snowmen, gift wrapping and images of riding in a one horse open sleigh are good for business – never mind that many Thais have ever seen snow let alone know what a one horse open sleigh is. It felt kind of unreal in way – Thais loving songs about a winter wonderland and the birth of the Son of God.
Peter, Paul and Mary had a hit song forty years ago called “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.” One line in the song goes “and the words don’t get in the way.” That’s the way it seems to be for Thais. Christmas for them is kind of a Disney World fantasy land to which you can escape the day-to-day struggles of life and have fun for awhile.
Thais love having fun. They call it “sanuk.” Sanuk means spicing up everything you do with teasing and jokes and light heartedness. It’s kind of like their cuisine, which is based on noodles and rice – very bland ingredients. Until, that is, you add the chili peppers and spices for which the Thais are famous and then the flavors in your mouth shout, “Wow.”
After breakfast I sat in the guesthouse garden and tried to get into my spiritual task by reading the Christmas story in Luke and Matthew. As I read about Joseph and Mary, who was nine months pregnant, trudging for several days from Nazareth to Bethlehem; Mary giving birth in a smelly barn; and the family running for their lives to Egypt because an insecure king named Herod was out to kill their baby, it dawned on me that there is very little sanuk in the story that started this whole Christmas thing in the first place.
It’s like we can’t handle reality, like we’re always looking for an escape. It’s true for religious people who have romanticized the Christmas story into a cute cartoon. It’s true for secular folk who focus on giving presents and having fun during the holidays, who somehow in the midst of the freezing temperatures and slippery ice of December can conjure up a romantic vision of a winter wonderland.
The original Christmas story – you know, the one without Santa, Rudolf and Christmas cards – is not an escape from reality but an attempt to embrace it in a transforming way. No escape in the original.
As the day wore on I began to miss home more and more. I confess that I did miss my two children and opening presents on Christmas Eve. I missed the prospect of Christmas dinner with turkey and dressing and home made Christmas cookies.
But what I missed most of all was community – that group of people I saw Sunday after Sunday who were in church trying to discover meaning for their lives in the Bible stories, who were struggling to find strength to live out what they believed in the midst of an ambiguous reality that is anything but a winter wonderland.
I missed singing Christmas carols with people for whom the words to “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” didn’t get in the way but meant a great deal.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.