Christmas Day in Chiang Mai

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels

Christmas Eve hadn't gone according to my plans yesterday. Instead of achieving enlightenment regarding the true meaning of Christmas, I wound up missing my children, friends and church.

I thought I would be able to escape the commercialism back home by coming to a Buddhist country and instead was greeted by Christmas trees and Merry Christmas signs in many of the businesses, including my guest house. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a Happy Holidays banner in a Buddhist temple. Thankfully, I did not.

OK, so today I could try again. I would be alone until 3:00 in the afternoon when Nicky would pick me up to take me out to Kampan's house for the night. According to my fantasy, being alone would be the key to making my contact with God stronger. No distractions.

I decided to spend the morning reading the Christmas story in Luke and Matthew. Then, I'd go to the first chapter of John to read his more theological and less narrative account and finish off with Philippians 2, the part about Christ not hanging on to equality with the Father but humbling himself and taking on human form.

During breakfast I heard from Elvis and Bing and Alvin and the Chipmunks again. I couldn't wait to get away from that "feel good" music, and be by myself. After I finished my toast and fresh papaya, I walked over to a nearby coffee shop, sat on the porch, took out my Bible and tried to get into the spirit of Christmas.

Maybe it was because I was distracted by Alvin singing "I still want a hula hoop" over and over in my mind, or maybe I was suffering from a kind of "depression hang-over" brought on by my disappointments the day before, but I couldn't get into the Bible readings. . .even though I was alone. I'd start reading "in those days a decree went out. . ." and before I'd get through five verses, my mind would wander. So, I'd reprimand myself and start back at the beginning, get distracted and start back at the beginning, get distracted. . . .

A Buddhist I had read compared those random thoughts which intrude on your meditating to snakes which invade your house. "You have to drive the snakes out," he had written. So, I tried driving the random thoughts out of my mind, resulting in me getting more fixated on them than before.

The more I tried to make the Bible stories make me aware of God's presence, the further away from God I felt. Orthodox Christians believe that God can reveal himself through any means he chooses—nature or other people or a novel—but that the least ambiguous communication is through the Bible. However, on this particular Christmas morning in the Year of our Lord 2010, or 2554 according to the Buddhist calendar, the Bible didn't seem to be opening any doors for me. I wasn't feeling anything "spiritual."

After an hour I threw in the towel and conceded that the snakes had won this round. I flagged down a tuk tuk and got dropped off at the huge wholesale flower market across the Ping River and just a kilometer north of the Riverside B&B. Better to do something positive than to spin my spiritual wheels.

The flower market turned out to be a pleasant break from my struggle to connect with God. Everywhere I pointed my camera there was a good picture. Vibrant color for more than one city block. And no Merry Christmas banners anywhere. "This is the real Thailand," I thought, "unspoiled by Western consumerism." Sure, they were buying and selling, but there was an easy going non-competitive feel to the activity going on in the open air stalls, almost as if the interaction was more important to them than the bottom line.

By the time Nicky picked me up, I no longer felt depressed or disappointed. I had to admit, though, that I was glad to have company on Christmas Day. On the way out to Kampan's house, Nicky told me that Elder Sanit and Jiraporn had invited everyone from the Nong Bua Sam Church to their home for fellowship that evening. Being alone hadn't gotten me into the Christmas spirit. Maybe being with other believers would.

Nong Bua Sam is only a hundred meters down the soi from Kampan's house, and since many of the members were at the church getting ready for their Christmas celebration which they would hold the next day, I asked Nicky to drop me off at the church.

And since there was nothing I could do to help, I hung out with the members who were preparing 500 bags of goodies for the neighborhood kids. Most of the children around the church are Buddhist, but they know where the candy is at Christmas time.

Even though I understood very little of what was being said, the energy and excitement which accompanied the making of preparations felt very familiar. It was how I had spent the last thirty years of my life—planning children's pageants, writing sermons, getting ready for the big day. The feeling wasn't exactly spiritual, but it was good.

As I looked around I noticed how many beautiful faces were surrounding me. It was very much like my experience at the flower market a few hours earlier. There was beauty everywhere. So, of course, I took out my camera and started taking pictures.

There happened to be six girls helping assemble the gift bags who seemed to be around fourteen years old and who were especially attractive to me. I could just imagine their faces in the slide show I would be putting together after returning to Chicago. But when I pointed my camera at one of them, she lowered her head, so I couldn't see her face. Thinking she was just shy, I pointed the camera at the girl next to her who turned her head away.

Strange. I was used to Thais being very responsive to cameras, making the peace sign and flashing big smiles, and then giggling when I showed them the image on the camera's screen. These girls, however, wouldn't join in the sanuk, the fun. In fact, they seemed irritated with me, like I was violating their personal space.

After a couple minutes of trying to coax at least one of them to pose for me, I got the not so subtle hint and put my camera away. It happens often when I'm in Thailand. My instincts are not very good in that culture so different from mine.

At 8:00 that evening twenty of the older members of Nong Bua Sam and I assembled at the home of Sanit and Jiraporn. Everyone took off their shoes at the door and took their place in a circle of chairs and couches in the living room. Many were dressed in red, some even wearing stocking caps embroidered with reindeer.

We sang Christmas carols—they in Thai and I in English—prayed together (in Thai, none of which I understood) and received tins of cookies from our hosts on the way out. In Thai culture, gifts are often given. Singing the carols, receiving a gift, being with people who shared my sense of what this day means, it all felt a little bit better than my battles with the snakes earlier that day. But only a little better and a long, long way from enlightenment.

Back at Kampan's house, I gave my host a wai, said good night and went straight to my bedroom. It had been a long day.

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