Since I moved to the West over 20 years ago, this time of year feels challenging to me. I often feel a sense of conflict in myself, between my inner world and the world outside me. It is not just the cold and the darkness that we experience in the Northern hemisphere in December that confronts me, but also the disparity of my trying to live in harmony with Nature here and still function in the bustling human society around me.
When I was a kid growing up in Malaysia, my family celebrated Christmas. I was brought up Catholic; we went to church every Sunday and at Christmas, we went to midnight-mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus. At home, we put up our fake plastic Christmas tree and decorations, topped off with white-cotton-wool to mimic snowflakes as well as blinking lights to simulate snow-glistening. Just like in the Western movies, except there weren't gifts under the tree; partly because we couldn't afford gifts for a family of 8 but also it just wasn't part of our culture. I recall getting 1 gift at Christmas when I was about 7, a skipping rope with a counter, that went defective 2 months after that. My parents adopted the giving of the envelope with money, Hóng Bāo (Red Packet) for Christmas as well as in Chinese New Year, which I hear is very common in Malaysian Christmas gift-giving.
Why did we have a fake plastic coniferous-like tree in our living room in tropical Malaysia? First of all, very few conifer trees grow just above sea-level in the tropics. Hence, the fake plastic substitute. As Malaysia was a British colony till 1957, I imagine we adopted many of the eccentricities of the British as well as the influence of American movies, never really understanding the meaning of Christmas and things related to its celebration. The conifer was/is used for its evergreen quality, as a reminder that life would return after the dark, sunless days of winter in the Northern hemisphere. But in tropical Malaysia, most plants are almost always green due to the warm climate and daily sunlight all year round. It is kind of a redundant practice there. What's more, putting white cotton to imitate snow that never falls in the tropics is a little bizarre, because most people in Malaysia have never experienced snow unless they have travelled elsewhere for it. But I imagine that finding meaning in our lives wasn't and still isn't the goal of capitalism, which is what Christmas has become; another means to sell more stuff and create need where there is none. I am not saying that we can't celebrate Christmas in Malaysia, I think we could find other more meaningful representations that actually mean something to the local culture.
While the dark and cold, pushes me to go inward, the bright lights and sounds of Christmas, not to mention the fixation of the populace on gifts and consuming wrenches me outward. I know I risk being called a Scrooge with my "Bah humbug" attitude towards Christmas, but Christmas as I know it in the modern world lacks meaning; my aversion is to the capitalistic form of Christmas, not to that that is personal and meaningful to each. Most people feel disconnected and stressed at this time of year, and it's no wonder. We need to find meaning again to life and the beings around us. For me, I celebrate the Returning of the Light at the Winter Solstice, the turning of the tide from inward to outward. But before I can come outward, I have to go inward. Some students of mine asked me recently how we could go inward and when we still have to go to work and are compelled to produce outward. I use the analogy of listening to music; we can still listen to music but we can turn the volume down to 3 and not keep it at the maximum of 10. This way the music is still playing but the outward manifestation of the intensity is muted, leaving more space as well as energy to store and recover what was used in warmer times.
I have let go of fake plastic trees, we have a fir tree in a pot that we bring in and decorate with candles a few days before Christmas, for years now. The rest of the year, it is in our garden in a shady spot, growing in the environment where we live in. I try to make my own presents, like cookies and herbal wines, to gift family and friends; something from the heart, not from the store. We share meals together and time. This for me is what this time of year is about, having time and space to share with one another.
Image Green Pine Tree Leave by Roman Kaiuk on pexels.com