In America, I despised Christmas. Because Christmas was all about consumption. And I despise consumption.
But my disdain for the holidays extended beyond Christmas. I despised the entire last quarter of the year, a time when people splurged and binged on useless things. And then shortly thereafter, at the mark of the new year, promised to shed it all: the weight, the clutter, the habits. But just as the new year faded into the forthcoming months, all resolutions faded too.
I was amazed every Thanksgiving that we gave praise and celebrated our thanks for all that we had. But the very next day lined up at 4am to trample people for all that we didn’t. Everyone seemed to be okay with this contradiction of values.
So the last ten years of my life in America, before I left for Thailand, I opted out of the festivities. I still met family and friends on holidays. I still enjoyed the food and laughs shared. But if you walked into my house, without looking outside, you couldn’t tell what time of the year it was.
But three years removed from the American traditions and I’m starting to think differently. The holidays I once forbid myself to partake in, I now miss. What I once considered the crest of consumption, I now crave.
Maybe it’s the temporarily feeling of being homesick around the holidays. Maybe it’s me being overly nostalgic. Maybe three years away from my family is making me miss them and the holidays even more. Or maybe I miss the opportunity to rebel against the mainstream. Because back home I always knew when Christmas was coming. And it gave me a chance to hold my stance on anti-consumption with conviction. It was about the spirit, I’d say.
But in Thailand I have no convictions to grab onto. And if I did who would listen? Do Thais understand the spirit of Christmas anymore than Americans understand the spirit of Loy Krathong?
Central World can put up all the larger-than-life Peanuts characters they want. It’ll never make up for the spirit that runs through the American people around the holidays. And it’ll never replace the ambiance of winter: the sound of snow crunching below my boots; the sight of flakes dropping by my window; the smell of pine emanating from the giant Christmas tree in my mother’s house, decorated with homemade ornaments from the last 37 years. The fake, spineless trees that stand at acute angles in Big C can’t replace that.
And what about those lights on the giant pine? They were more than decoration. No matter how hard things got for my family throughout our lives, no matter how far down the dark hole I spun, the lights of the Christmas tree shining through the window onto the nighttime street were a guidepost. They let me know I was home.
But in Bangkok I have no guideposts to let me know I’m home for the holidays, save for a pair of condo balconies whose dwellers decorate every December with a string of lights. Although the lights look funny crowned above the palms, they bring me peace. Every time I enter the complex I pause and look up. And for a second I’m reminded of home.
I’m reminded of the food and the gifts and the stockings, each laced with the names of every child and grandchild. Each filled with something personal to that person. And the cards. Every year my mother saved every Christmas card she ever got. And every year she frames the doorways of our house with those cards. They’re pieces of history, the scribblings of family and friends, some long gone or some long forgotten. In a time before text messages and social media, they were tangible extensions of the human spirit, shared only between two people or two families.
Our first Christmas in Thailand my step-father sent my oldest daughter a Christmas book as a gift. I decided long before my daughter was born that I wouldn’t lie to her about Santa Claus. That I wouldn’t use a made-up man to trick her into doing things I wanted, or be forever damned without gifts on Christmas. I wouldn’t, for the life of me, indoctrinate her into the culture of consumption.
But when I opened the book to give it a read it was nothing of the sort. The book’s message, like what I now miss most about Christmas, is about the spirit of the holidays. It’s about giving to those in need, being honest to those who matter most, and most importantly, following what you believe to be true in your heart.
I don’t believe in consumption. But I believe in Christmas. If not for anything else, than for the feeling of being home and immersed in the spirit of the American people. Even if that spirit lives for only a few weeks. Because in that place and time I’m surrounded by familiar faces. And with those faces I share the fragments of our history, those fragments that have kept us together over the years, and continue to keep us together, over the miles.