As I write, it’s the fourth day of Christmas in Chiang Mai, Thailand. But it doesn’t feel like Christmas. And having resided in Thailand for eight years now, it’s no surprise to me. Nor should it be. Thailand is a Buddhist country. Over 90% of its people are Buddhist. And so I’ve got used to it.
For several weeks all the crappy trappings of the commercial side of things have been growing and are now to be seen in all their tasteless glory. The great stores and shopping malls of Bangkok and Chiang Mai are filled with plastic Christmas trees, reindeer pulling sleighs with a smiling Santa onboard and fake snow is in abundance. “Merry Christmas” logos are on display. The “Happy New Year” signs are also in there (they never take them down) and, of course, the worst Santa music imaginable fills the air. There are no Bethlehem Nativity scenes of course and no mention of Christ himself. “Jesus who?” she said as she wrapped the Christmas gift.
As always, I did my bit to avoid all that. On Christmas Eve, my lady and I dined out at a local bistro and enjoyed a wonderful supper with excellent wine. A morning man, I awoke early on Christmas Day, went out with my dogs and watched the sun rise over the eastern hills. After breakfast, as a good Catholic lad should, I attended mass at my local church. St. Joseph the Fisherman is a small, humble place of worship. Today it was filled, and chairs were placed outside to accommodate the crowd. The congregation was mostly Thai Christians celebrating this most special day. The rest of the day was spent with family and friends enjoying good food and drink. We ended the day with a small bonfire and a good robust wine. It was good and peaceful. Watching the flames, I reflected on past Christmas times.
Perhaps the most powerful Christmas for me was in 1983 when I celebrated the event with a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. I was working in Israel on a defense contract and had visited many historical and biblical sites: the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Western Wall, Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives and the tombs of the prophets. So, visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem at Christmas was a natural event. It was a fascinating and moving experience shared with many others from foreign lands. There was little commercialism. And at 3800 feet above sea level, it was cold. I recommend to anyone contemplating this journey; take warm clothes.
Another great Christmas, 1997, was spent at a Canadian home I had on two secluded acres in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. There was myself, my girl, Aline, two Irish couples who were strangers, but became great friends, my dog, Kitty, and Mimi my cat. It was a winter of heavy snowfall. I’d had lots of dry firewood brought in, lots of good food and drink: beer, wine, and fine liquor. We skied, snow-shoed and tobogganed. And with great music, we partied before roaring fires for a whole week into New Year. My friends still speak of it after all these years.
There have been other memorable Christmas times. However, my most treasured Christmas of all was in 2007 spent in Ste. Adele, Quebec alone with my dog, Whisky, a lovely affectionate Basset Hound, in a log home I’d built. I gathered firewood and stocked up on food and drink. I set up a tree I’d cut in the local woods. I received few Christmas cards, but I put them up and added all the old cards from previous years. I spent Christmas Eve morning cross country skiing. In the afternoon I took Whisky through the local woods for a snowshoe foray. Getting home wet and tired at around four o’clock, I opened a cold white wine lit a cigar and climbed into a deep hot bath; highly recommended. In the evening, after a simple, supper, I sat before a log fire. With Whisky beside me, I listened to music and enjoyed a variety of spirits and Cuban panatelas. Christmas Day was enjoyed in much the same vein. Whisky has long since passed on. But the memory and that wonderful Christmas I shared with her will never leave me.
Christmas is what you make it. You can go with the flow, follow the madding crowd along the insane commercial route, burn your credit cards shopping for presents for the gift exchange frenzy. Then put on a party hat, eat and drink too much, pretend you’re enjoying yourself and fall into bed hoping the madness will end soon. You can then post on your FB page how tired you are and that Christmas is becoming such hard work. Or you can do as I do and make it a worthwhile and enjoyable experience. Merry Christmas.