I am not a Christian, but I am anthropologically and theologically curious, adventurous, and flexible. The chameleon is my totemic animal, and I tend to experience any colors I crawl across with my entire body, observing with rolling eyes the environment I have blended into. If I enjoy the sensation, I retain its memory in my scales for future use.
I grew up celebrating christmas as a day when fairy-tales come true, when families get together, when the house is decorated, when music is played, good food is eaten, and gifts are exchanged. Occasional snow and cold weather added romance and winter fun, and made the warmth emanating from cookie baking ovens and bustling family members inside the house even more precious. The tale of Jesus’s birth in the stable was part of it, too - served in christmas carols, kindergarten plays, and porcelain nativity scenes inherited from more pious generations - so even though I was not raised in a Christian household, I grew up immersed in Christian traditions, and I am happy for it.
Jesus is best known for dying a horrible death on the cross and rising from the dead a few days later, but it is his birthday that marks the most elaborate Christian celebration in most Christian countries today. Jesus of Nazareth brought significant gifts to many, including universal forgiveness for their sins, constant soul support and companionship, and eternal life in exchange for following his rules here on earth. When he was alive, he built things. He taught generosity, neighborly love, courage, charity, and honesty, and healed people from ailments and handicaps. The festive food eaten for Christmas - and traditionally shared with the poor - as well as the gifts exchanged are apt symbols for the honorable life style he advocated.
Watching scenes of customers attacking competitors with pepper spray at Walmart to secure the best deals for electronic items on Black Friday, and desperately pushing our way through cities that seem to hemorrhage christmas spirit while consumption madness sprouts like a giant tumor from every commercial-ridden street corner, and christmas carols lull shoppers into more vexing desires, more tempting deals, and more outrageous splurges, it seems that the original spirit of christmas has become perverted and distorted in many minds and places.
I, on the other hand, was blessed this year to celebrate christmas with a group of people who have chosen to counter-act this trend, seeking a life based on ideas like community, self-sustainability, exchange, and making the most of local resources. When a small core group of people started this community 20 years ago, they made a rule that no kids would be allowed on their land. Today, they have matured. We have babies, children, teenagers, adults, and elders, and there is talk of finding space for a cemetery. Whatever life style, whatever ideology you choose, being human, you cannot escape birth, disease, old age, and death - and all that they entail.
The focus in community life is on walking the path of being human together. On eating the cake together instead of having it alone. On baking the cake instead of buying it. On sharing and thereby multiplying our strengths and possessions. On “Mend and make do to save buying new.” On giving and receiving. On nurturing our own and each other’s individual sparks; creating and disseminating skills, joy, and support.
The three main items on our agenda for christmas day express this philosophy in a nutshell.
- Piñata - The children whack the piñata until it cracks open, and are rewarded for their efforts with copious supplies of candy. They are happy and high for the day.
- Potluck: everybody makes and brings food to be shared.
- Everybody brings a present. Presents are exchanged in a game with the following rules: each participant receives a number. The number marks a person’s turn. Number 1 means, you get to choose and unwrap the first present. Number 2 means you get to choose the second present. As Number 2 you may either take the present Number 1 has already unwrapped or unwrap a new present. The game continues in this fashion, and each person has the choice of either taking away a present that has already been unwrapped, or getting a new present from the pile. After a present has changed hands twice, however, it is locked and can no longer be taken.
We have had two months of nearly constant rain in Puna that has turned our land into a swamp. Four-wheel drives are increasingly useful; diseases like sore throats, headaches, and eczema are going strong and must be kept at bay with saltwater gargling, hot drinks, ginger, garlic, and turmeric; leather, towels, window screens, fabrics, furniture, and yoga mats get moldy and must be checked and cleaned daily.
One day I open a drawer and hardly recognize my passport under a layer of blue fur. I have to wipe a drop of sweat and a distraught look off my face as I grab a cloth to save my internationally mobile identity, threatening to be overgrown by jungle mold. When the blue-gray coating gives way to chipped golden lettering on wine-red leather, however, what I hold in my hand seems like a mysterious alien object from a long forgotten world that has nothing to do with myself. Spooked, I throw it back in the drawer and kick it shut. I might go back to this later. For now I am merging with the elements around me, exploring the chemical reactions that occur and the new materials they yield.
We have all been dreaming of a dry christmas. And our wish is granted. Christmas day this year comes with rich blessing of sunshine. We enjoy the first glasses of home-made organic eggnog and locally brewed beer outside in the sun, hang the piñata from a tree, and let the kids pick up their candy from a patch of nearly mud-free lawn.
Potluck today is bounteous. People have made extra efforts to piece together a special feast. In addition to my usual oat and raisin cookies I have made the second cheesecake of my life and decorated it with chocolate and whipped cream. Other dishes served include: brined roast chicken, kumquat skins filled with chocolate, grilled ribs of grass-fed Hawaiian beef, vegan sunflower paté with gluten-free gravy, English cheese, freshly harvested avocado, lemon pie, mozzarella and tomato with basil, filled wine leaves, oven-roasted vegetables, orange, green, and white tortillas, vegan and non-vegan rice pudding, mashed, and scalloped potatoes.
After our bellies are filled, the most interesting part of the party begins: the gift giving game. In our community, company executives are rare. We have some licensed medical marihuana growers. Alternative medicine makers. Teachers. Homemakers. A clown. A translator. People scraping by on welfare and small jobs including market vending, crafting, cleaning, house-and dog sitting, etc. Creative genius and eccentricity abound. These demographics make for an exciting variety of presents.
But what is even more exciting is observing the dynamics of the game. How people handle getting something and then having it taken away from them. The choices they make: Do they go for the gamble of taking something they know and love that might be taken away from them again? Do they go for the safe choice of a present that gets locked in their hands? Or do they go for the surprise of unwrapping a new gift?
Are they selfish? Or do they pay attention to other’s needs and valiantly hunt presents for their partners, children, friends, or parents? Are they active or passive? Bold or polite? Impulsive or calculating? Do they try to advertise unwanted presents to the next taker so they can conquer something new? Do they express their love for a particular present passionately as soon as they see it or quietly hide their feelings until they get a chance to grab it? How do they take the loss of having a loved present taken away from them? Crisis or opportunity?
As the gift giving game unfolds, I see all of this and more. D. almost cries when his machete gets taken away from him. T. pulls a sneak attack on my chopsticks. N. conquers a beautiful shawl for his wife; she tries to return the favor with a 30-minute full body massage for him, wrapped up in a mandala, but it gets snatched away from her again. Old G. who usually needs a walker, performs a hot little dance with his Hawaiian ti-leaf crown, waving two large leaves by his side in an enchanting hula imitation.
I see people barter, rattling boxes of energizing mints to make them look more attractive, sticking decorative tiles in people’s faces to hide all their other choices. Some carelessly show off fashion pieces only to be flabbergasted when somebody else claims them. Participants blessed with precious gems hide their booty, silently looking away as the present hunter passes by to strike.
Another interesting element is to see what presents are the most coveted. Watching the spectacle unfold I feel inspired to make an experiment and have people play this game in different communities, in different places and living scenarios to compare the most coveted presents. Gifts that change hands twice in our game include: a set of 3 cast iron skillets, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a machete, a full-body massage, a studded belt, and a pair of hand-crafted warm walking socks with snake tongues- and faces.
It is an enriching experience to be exposed to all the forces and factors at play in the gift giving game. I start off with a beautiful set of handmade chopsticks. They get taken away from me unexpectedly. I go for a new surprise and get an equally beautiful shawl. Once again, I get robbed of it. I decide to open an interesting small envelope and am thrilled to discover a voucher for a quart of home-made yoghurt (expensive to buy here!) by a good and trusted cook. Once again, very unexpectedly, it gets taken away. This time, there is only one more wrapped present left, and I go hunting among the unwrapped loot for the first time. I decide to claim a gift box that contains a silver pen, an empty journal, and a calendar for next year - a fresh angel message for every day.
During the game, I feel animated and emotionally engaged in the gift giving part, but really I am much more interested in the human dimension of it, watching everybody’s moves unfold like the chapters of a psycho-thriller leading to its resolution. While I have each present, I am happy with it. When it gets taken away from me I go through a short stage of slight disappointment, competitive indignation, or surprise, then happily grab the opportunity by the reins.
After all I know what I signed up for from the beginning, and our founding father quite aptly describes this activity as “a Buddhist game” of non-attachment. While I was happy with each present I had, I feel I have ended up with the perfect present. If this development is any indication for how things are going to go next year, I see an abundant, happy year coming. Now, is this due to the way the game went, or to my carefully crafted attitude? I will never know, but I will always keep working on my attitude - just in case, and because it is all I can do.
As the tumultuous, exciting, dramatic, and competitive mosaic of human relations, emotions, and individual psychologies comes to an overall happy end, I feel that really, it is not the presents that matter. It is the exchange, the gathering, the game. Maybe, what we should focus on as we try to make this annual celebration meaningful again is presence instead of presents. This seems to be much closer to the origin of christmas than greedy consumerist pepper spray battles. After all, Christ’s most appreciated gift to people is his continued presence. I’m sure you’ve heard fervent preachers say “Jesus cares!” or “Jesus loves you!” A caring, loving presence in our life is something we all long for, something we all need, and something we all can give, regardless of our circumstances.
Darkness descends, a fire is lit, and music is played. Ukuleles, drums, guitars, recorders. Voices: some musical but uneducated, some the exact opposite. Listening to these songs, equally familiar and unknown, a smile spreads across my face. We are doing something important here. Regardless of our skills, talents, and backgrounds, we are actively striving for harmony. We are born, we get sick, we grow old, we die. This is the part we cannot change. But as long as we are here, we can do out best. We can give and receive presence. Mele Kalikimaka.