Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Christmas week, 2008: I was navigating my way down the Nam Song River in a sea kayak in Vang Vieng, Laos as the sun beat down on my curls from high above the karst mountains. Later I got lost/trapped while caving with sweet Bretchje from Sweden, who had fallen out of a moving bus onto a highway just weeks before; we then rewarded ourselves for surviving our respective brushes with disaster by rope-swinging over a teal blue lagoon at the cave base. I mountain-biked through rugged and dusty terrain, searching for and finding nothing and everything. I discovered Luang Prabang and reconnected with Charlotte and Erwan from Paris, quickly knitting the warm fabric of a lasting and dear friendship. I swam under the waterfalls with all my newfound friends. I rose before the sun on Christmas Day, shivering as I knelt on the sidewalk, waiting to give alms to the monks.

Christmas week, 2009: Small wonder the season, like so many other things around me, feels so awkward this year.

Once upon a time not very long ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a bigger die-hard Christmas fan than I. I felt and acted “Christmassy” from the first day in November that it seemed socially acceptable (and admittedly much earlier than that within the privacy of my own home. What’s wrong with playing Bing Crosby’s “The Christmas Song” in October?) Lights were dripping from every window and doorframe of my home; a riot of garland was coiled around the stair rail outside; weeks were spent writing and revising gift lists until I was sure I had the perfect thing in mind for everyone. And of course, cookies, cookies, cookies.

The gift-giving part started its descent down the slippery slope of meaning a few years ago. My grasp began to falter. The commercial nature of it all; people lining up outside Best Buy in the middle of the night to make sure they were the first to get their hands on the door-crasher specials; everyone stressing over what to get for whom and how much to spend on it...I asked myself with greater and greater emphasis each passing year: Why? What does any of it have to do with the meaning of Christmas? Or – a depressing thought - has this become the meaning of Christmas? I felt like Charlie Brown when he went to the tree lot with Linus and was bombarded with all of the fake multicoloured, multi-material, artificial trees: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Ask any kid in a Spiderman costume what the meaning of Halloween is and you’re likely to garner an incredulous glare as the little one peels off his mask just long enough to shout, “DUH.....CANDY!!!” I’ll venture a guess that nary a one (nor any adults, for that matter) would have a clue that its roots lie in the Christian holiday of All Saints and/or the Celtic festival of Samhain, with the name Halloween deriving from a 16th-century Scottish term.

Has the same thing happened to Christmas? (“DUH....PRESENTS!!!”)

Traditional gifting for me eventually morphed into a combination of making home-made treats (some of you will remember, hopefully fondly, the Irish cream and the chocolate truffles) and donating to worthy causes and organizations on behalf of others. At least these were things that made sense to me.

Last year while backpacking, my material gift-giving amounted to the mailing of five hand-painted Christmas cards made by a Bangkok artist depicting Santa chilling in a hammock in front of a traditional Thai beach bungalow. The cards astonishingly arrived at the homes of my family and friends on none other than Christmas Eve.

“Giving” last Christmas meant something different. Sticky rice to the monks (who don’t celebrate Christmas anyway). Time, sharing and caring to my new travel friends. The journey of a lifetime to myself.

Things are – I am - different now. There are no lights in my windows this year. No garland on the balcony railing. No list of gifts to buy. (There is, however, Bing Crosby still singing “The Christmas Song”, because it will always be pretty and perfect.)

You must understand I’m not being a Scrooge. This is not “bah-humbug”. More like, “bah... huh?”

I’m just quietly watching. I believe if one wants to learn and understand something old in a new light, one should try to do so from a position of neutrality and objectivity. And so I float above the fray of North American holiday madness, observing it like I observed the Muslims celebrating Mawlid in Indonesia: Something foreign, unrelated to me; curious and often confusing in its traditions and customs.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I am spiritual... yet the spirit of Christmas eludes me. Curious to understand more, I googled “Christmas spirit” and “definition”. Wikipedia offered up this gem: “The Christmas Spirit is a Christmas album and seventeenth album by country singer Johnny Cash, released on Columbia Records in November 1963 (see 1963 in music). It contains four original Christmas songs written by Cash and eight tracks originally penned by other artists, including "Blue Christmas", "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy".


In a few days I’ll be boarding a plane out west to spend the holidays with my whole family. It’s the first time in ten years that we will all be together on Christmas. I will catch up with my sister and my brother; I will play with my niece and nephew and watch the magic of the season fill their eyes and take over their little bodies; I will get up to silliness with my mother, as always.

I think that there, amidst the crumpled paper, commotion and cookies, lies what I might come to understand to be Christmas Spirit. My sister's home is good that way.

Although I am 13,000 km from where I was a year ago geographically and as a person much farther away than that, this Christmas is identical to last year’s in one important way: I will give with my heart.

Wishing you all a Christmas full of spirit and meaning.

“To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year” E.B. White

1 comment:

UpStart Press said...

You are not being bah-humbug at all! Commercialism all but destroyed Christmas for me many years ago. It is only through a careful and determined return to simplicity that I am slowly getting the Christmas spirit back. It starts, for me, with no shopping, no malls, no trips to the 'burbs. We send handmade cards to friends and family and small gifts to the children we know. A special meal, a pretty tree...that's about it, and it's a very nice time!