Monday, December 10, 2007

"Oh the monkies have no tails in Zam-Boanga"

I've been thinking about Christmas this week. We've got some preparations to make and some gifts to buy and the normal holiday stuff. A lot of people seem to find this a really stressful time of year but I never have. While Christmas in Hong Kong often defines the words "trite, cheap & materialistic" It is also a pleasant time in too many ways to count.

This year I have been thinking about how the holiday season has changed for me over time. Family traditions are a nebulous thing in my household. I guess that the nearest thing to a Christmas tradition we had was the concept of a Christmas trip. Whether that was going back to see my parents when we were in Austin or later family trips the Bahamas, Guam or Thailand, we've taken trips at Christmas several times. We also used to host graduate students from the mainland when we had a larger apartment. This was a really nice way to spend a holiday.

The really smart, very pretty, looks twenty-five years younger than she is, hard working and gracious wife and I will also spend several hours with a bowl of popcorn watching corny old Christmas movies. I can't stand "It's a Wonderful Life" but most of them I really enjoy. The Polar Express from a couple of years ago has moved up to the top of my personal list of Christmas movies but you are free to have your own.

I also try to read through the Christmas story in the book of Luke several times in December.

When I was a child my parents would drive us kids around to see the lights on people's houses. There was a competition in the town at that time and neighborhoods would compete for some sort of prize or trophy for best decorated neighborhood as well as individuals. This was a very simple thing for my parents to do. Just load the kids in the back of the 65 Chevy after dark and head off to where the lights were. Yet it was one of my favorite things and one of my most cherished memories. Sometimes we'd see lights that said "Happy Hanuka" and I found it pleasant to know that Jewish people could celebrate the holidays too. It made me aware of the fact that there were were people who believed different things and that is a good lesson for any child to learn. One year, a rather well known atheist in our town decorated his house for Christmas with the words "Bah-Humbug" and images of Scrooge and Tiny Tim on crutches. He didn't think that Christmas should be a holiday at all. He won the prize for the best lights display that year which may not have been his intention. I thought it was hilarious and laughed really hard when I read that he'd won in the paper. Something else that may not have been his intention was that because I didn't understand the meaning of his display, I read "A Christmas Carrol" by Charles Dickens. I have wondered at times if that man ever read the ending of that book? I can't say those lights changed my life but seeing them did improve my life.

In a similar vein my wife, who deserves the superlatives listed above, and I try to ride the Star Ferry across the harbor at this time of year to see the lights on the buildings. It is something that I always look forward to. I thought of that this week and I thought of those lights that said "Bah-Humbug" on that house so long ago. I thought of the strings of memory that tie us to what we were and shape us in unpredictable ways years later.

The existentialist in me has been wondering about these kinds of things lately. I don't know why, sometimes I just can't help myself. I asked myself, "When do silly things become a tradition and when do those traditions take on an importance beyond the actual deed?" When did driving around looking at Christmas lights on people's houses become more than entertainment for me and become a cherished memory? When did seeing the lights on Hong Kong buildings go from being something that happened almost accidentally into something intentional? When does the trivial, the small and the ordinary become special? When and how do we raise those special thing to an almost religious status? I don't know if I can answer those questions. If I could I don't think I would want to. I'm not going to try. Sometimes knowing the answer ruins everything. Sometimes I just have to sit back and marvel at how wonderful it is to be able to develop family traditions at all.

It occurs to me that family traditions like this are a very odd thing. They are personal yet occur in a group. The best ones also seem to just happen. They aren't forced or intentional but become intentional through the pleasure they give us. I can see this in one of the Christmas movies I watch which isn't really a Christmas movie at all as far as I know. It's Donovan's Reef, staring John Wayne, Lee Marvin and (I think) Maureen O'Hara. It is set on a Pacific Island just after World War II. It is a fairly typical romantic comedy of the 1950's, a "B" movie all the way but a fun one. It does have a Christmas scene, and that makes it a Christmas movie to me, that I laughed at as a child, thought was culturally insensitive as a university student and find profound today in a way that I don't think the people who made the movie ever intended.

In the movie the people of the island produce a Christmas pageant in a ruinous church with a leaky roof. The major part of the pageant is the adoration of the wise men who in the movie are represented by the King of Polynesia, the Emperor of China and the King of the United States of America. Besides the cheap laugh of seeing Lee Marvin dressed as the Statue of Liberty there is something going on in this scene that has parallels in my family. I see a group of people of mixed culture and race adapting and blending traditions from somewhere else into something that is meaningful to them. It is new but contains elements of things from somewhere else. I think of the foods my family eats on Christmas and how different those are from what we had when I was a child. It is different in every particular and yet exactly the same.

It is the same because it is the same love and joy, the same fellowship, it doesn't matter what we eat. It is, or so it seems to me, the Dickensonian Spirit of Christmas Present making merry with all who will make merry with him. It is the wonder of the Christ child, helpless in a manger. It is all things good, all things desirable and all things wonderful. It is no surprise to me that the best hymns, from a musical and theological standpoint, are often Christmas carols.

This blog averages about three hits a day. I can watch the number but don't have any idea who is behind the numbers. But, whoever you are, "Merry Christmas from me and mine to you and yours. May the love of the Christ child be yours this year and for many to come"

I may not be able to post much for the next couple of weeks.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Holiday Making Blogger

No comments: