By Natalie Bennett
It must be herd instinct: that’s the only explanation I can think of to explain why every Christmas I find myself in one or another of Bangkok’s “English” pubs, eating a traditional dinner of heavy food. I know the plum pudding will sit in my stomach like the lump of lead it is, and the lashings of turkey protein will combine uncomfortably with the post-prandial brandy to send a distinctly unflattering Rudolph-style glow across my features as soon as I emerge from the cranked-to-the-limit air-conditioning.
But still every year, there I find myself. Of course it is partly a result of being far from home, family and the places of childhood memory, but it is hardly a logical nostalgia. As an Australian, Christmas for me never was snow and ice, holly and fir trees – at least not in my latter childhood years, when Australia was emerging from its long period of cultural cringe, and finally realising that this was ‘home’, not far-off England, and that after 200 years it was about time we started to come to terms with our environment and found a lifestyle to suit.
Oh, there was nothing wrong with some of the now worldwide tradition for the little kids – the red-suited Santa, reindeer and elves. One of my fondest memories is of spending one Christmas Eve with family friends with children much younger than myself. The kids adored the ‘reindeer-nibbled’ carrots and the drained beer (no shortage of volunteers to help Santa with the latter), and the younger one insisted the ‘snow’ dropped by the reindeer (cotton-wool) stay in the freezer for months. But the mums slaving for most of the next morning over the stove in the blazing kitchen, the microwaved plum pudding and hot custard, and the plastic fir tree definitely could, and generally now have, been improved upon.
My teenage Christmases evolved into a new and far more sensible style. Sometimes it might be a picnic on the beach or in the bush of one of the many national parks around Sydney. Other times it was at home, but in more rational form. It began on Christmas Eve with a trip to the fish market, for a huge basket of the magnificent national catch, from huge Queensland king prawns, to Territory barramundi, and the unbeatable Sydney rock oysters. Fish and prawns were barbecued outside, side salads mixed in a mercifully cool kitchen, and the whole washed down with a classy early Chablis. If anything could be logical for a Bangkok Christmas, this would be it.
Now, there’s no logical reason to celebrate Christmas at all in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, but this is Thailand, and of course any excuse for a party will do. Indeed, as one of the more pleasant effects of globalisation, this is becoming the world’s time of celebration. The sceptics might like to scoff at it as ‘political correctness’, but Merry Christmas is throughout the world – New York, with its strong Jewish community, seems to have been the starting point – being replaced by the non-denominational Seasons Greetings. And surely it can only be good if the world is being brought together not in hard-boiled trade or combative financial transactions, but in a party.
Just as early Christians almost 2,000 years ago adopted many pagan ceremonies to develop what we think of as Christian ceremonies, today those traditions we now think of as Christian are being co-opted into something quite different – chiefly materialism at present, it must be said, but who knows where it might go in the future?
Maybe in 2097, the world festival of ‘Mas-Year’ (Christmas and New Year) will be a five-day international party, with Santa still present to the joy of the young ones, but linked with Chinese firecrackers and Muslim traditions of hospitality. Maybe in thanks for the wonderful environment that has survived so much abuse, it will be a vegetarian festival, with the Thai-Chinese vegetarian tradition, and menus, taking a forward role. (Although hopefully by then the human race will have grown out of such barbarism as the violent body piercings we see every year in Phuket!) And no doubt in deference to the barely- avoided catastrophe of the greenhouse effect, the draping of every possible object with strings of lights will have been replaced in Bangkok by more use of eco-friendly flower garlands.
Maybe by then the human race will have evolved so that we feast, drink and make merry, but not to excess, in food suited to whatever location we might be at a celebration of world unity and peace but without any pressing need to follow the dictates of advertisers and herd instinct.
Who knows? By then, Bangkok air might be crystal-clear, the Chao Phaya River a free flow of sparkling water, and Bangkok residents might be enjoying Mas-Year barbecues in the many leafy parks along its length, having begun the morning with special offerings to Buddhist monks. No, I have not been engaging in some early festive season tippling, just a little opti- mistic spirit we surely must find as a new year, and a new millennium, beckons.
This first appeared in Thailand Tatler, December 1997