A throwback Thursday post remembering what it felt like to celebrate Christmas in a country that doesn’t.
December 2010—Bangkok, Thailand
The plus side to being abroad? Santa comes to Thailand first.
The down side? Well, I was anticipating lots of down sides. The strangeness of being in a country where Christmas is not celebrated. The weirdness of working all day Christmas Eve. The bewildering fact that for the first time, on December 25th, I am in a place where it is 92 degrees out. And it was bewildering. In many ways, coming to Thailand has been like entering a time warp for David and me. We left the US in August, in peak heat season. And we haven’t had a cold day yet. We’ve barely had a cloudy one. So trying to convince us that it’s December (especially since we’ve spent the last several years in that brutal city, Boston), has been a bit like trying to convince us that the Patriots are playing well this season. It will take us a bit to remember that something such as football exists, and then maybe we’ll buy it.
So we coasted into this unbelievable month, barely cognizant of the upcoming holidays. At the top of the month Thailand looks as it always looks, which is to say it was undecorated. Slowly, though, we saw strings of lights burgeoning, strung across wide avenues and draped over pictures of the king (it was His Majesty’s 86th birthday on December 5th). We thought the lights might be temporary, but to our surprise they stayed. We thought, okay, we can make do with these lights. They’re enough Christmas for us. But it was still a little disconcerting, the way the month was moving and nothing was changing, suggesting the holidays the way it does in the States. Then, last week, Bangkok and the surrounding area exploded into a frenzy of decorations. I couldn’t believe it…I’ll liken it to waking up in Boston freshman year to my first snow, where this strange new world that I had barely just adjusted to suddenly looked even more alien, more foreign, and yet at the same time, more…familiar? Christmas trees bearing the slogan, “Happy New Year 2011” were suddenly in shop windows. Golden foil cutouts and colored garlands were draped across lampposts, fences, even down the hallways at school. Banners welcoming the upcoming year were decorated with snowmen, reindeer, and (could it be??) Santa Claus himself. It is a bizarre (to me) merging of Christmas and New Year, where all of the accoutrements of Christmas are assigned to New Year celebrations, including a gift swap, Christmas carols, and the big man in red himself.
Okay, we thought. So it doesn’t say Merry Christmas. But at least there are decorations up now. Now it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. And suddenly, it was the week before Christmas. Our students had midterm testing all this week, and it was the end of their current unit, so, deciding to take it easy on them, we opted to teach Christmas boosters to as many classes as we could. We whipped up flashcards for “snowman,” “sled,” “Christmas tree,” “reindeer,” “stocking,” and “Santa Claus.” We brainstormed our favorite Christmas activities (mazes, coloring sheets, and art projects). We taught the kindergartners carols, and led snowman drawing competitions with our second graders. We made reindeer by tracing students’ feet and two hands, giving them big goofy eyes and noses that delighted our four year olds to no end. I’d heard it said often that Christmas changes when you have kids. Though David and I are by no means, parents, Christmas in the presence of all these small people, so enraptured by the concept of Santa and reindeer, so bright-eyed and anticipatory of all the (ok, New Years) presents heaped in the corners of classrooms definitely felt different than an average Christmas at home.
We worked Christmas Eve, but it was a light day. We had one kindergarten class in the afternoon, and we colored, sang, and watched Pluto and Mickey begin their hapless search for a Christmas tree, all the while being sabotaged by Chip and Dale. I was glad to head home at the end of the day, hoping to complete our few errands quickly and spend the night curled up watching a movie, blasting the air con to resemble a frigid winter’s night. But my plans were pleasantly interrupted. While I was at the pharmacy, I bought my allergy medicine and was stopped before leaving. To my immense surprise, from a shelf near the door, my friend the pharmacist whipped out a box containing a MamyPoko stuffed character. “Merry Christmas!” he said, beaming. David and I thanked him, a bit miffed, but still pleased. We carried on to our Christmas Eve dinner (a gluttonous meal of cheese rolls, pepperoni pizza, and chicken wings. At 300 baht, it was the equivalent to three days’ dinner), and on the way home, were stopped five more times by Thai vendors we’d come to know wishing us a Merry Christmas in their halting English. My favorite was our convenience store man, who sells us our packs of bottled water: “Hey! Merry Christmas, you!” he shouted from his stoop. We beamed back at him. As we headed into our apartment, we came across two other foreign teachers, and wound up spending the rest of the evening snacking on Cheez-its, Oreos, and Thai whiskey. Though we spent only a minute acknowledging it was Christmas, it felt good to be in company that spoke English, laughing and talking and sharing some eats.
Christmas Day was slow and languid. We woke late, miraculously not hungover (Happy Birthday, Jesus), and opened our gifts from home and from each other. I, who’d somehow managed to thwart all of David’s surprises (though not intentionally) was amazed when David opened the door carrying not just the coffee he’d run out to get, but a beautiful potted morning glory. And David, who’d hoped for a new watch and had been mercilessly denied one by me, was pleasantly pleased to open his last gift and find a new one. We grabbed brunch (a Thai omelette) and took the train into Bangkok, where we spent the rest of the afternoon at Silom park, renting a pedal boat, playing Frisbee, and enjoying the momentary sprinkle that made it feel like winter.
We missed you all at home, and were thankful to hear you on the phone and receive your cards and emails. You made our Christmas feel like Christmas, and last (literally) a little longer.