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Christmas In Byzantium

I think it's safe to say mine in the only house for quite a distance around with Christmas lights up. I think it's also safe to say that I am one of the few people in the world with a Christmas India Apple tree. I will concede that there might be a few other wreaths on doors near-by.

Now make no mistake, I am fully aware that Christmas is NOT a christian holiday. It is an ancient pagan festival of light celebrating the re-birth of the Sun (not the birth of the Son). So I am not trying to make some perverse religious statement here in the largest Muslim nation on Earth.

I just like Christmas decorations.

There's something mystical, at least to me, about decorating for Christmas. From my earliest childhood, I always loved the whole season. It was usually cool, if not cold (Houston is not all that different from Jakarta weather-wise), and Dad would have a fire in the fireplace at the least puff of cool air, most ly because he liked to burn everything in the house. If it hadn't been for my mother, he would have torn up the floorboards to burn. In fact, Christmas morning was his pyromanic orgy as he burned every box and scrap of warpping. It was quite funny actually.

There was also the smell of the Christmas tree. I love that smell. It is the reason I crave to live in the alpine region of mountains. I used to sit in the living room at night with only the light of the Christmas tree and just inhale deeply for hours. I loved going to the tree lots and I tried to hang out near the area where they trimmed the trunks, because the smell was intoxicating when the chainsaw heated the pine sap. I worked for a while as a butcher and it was popular in the prep area to mix pine needles with cinnamon and let it smolder all day.


Entangled with all this, of course, was the magic of having some fat man shimmy down the chimney once a year and unload a pile of goodies, free of charge. I got my first rifle from Santa and a chemistry set that gave me hours of fun making stink bombs. I got new books and cool toys, and all I had to do was behave all year.\

I also remember the first year I was aware of the truth. Since i was the oldest of six kids, it was recruited at the tender age of 8 to help Dad assemble all the toys on Christmas Eve. That was also the year I got my .22 Browning, so it was a coming-of-age moment, I suppose.

For a couple of years, I had a Christmas cactus. I had this enormous cactus with several fleshy arms and spines that were, in a word, formidable. I would wrap it with lights and hang ornaments off the spines. Those years, most of my ornaments were Texas-themed and I had an old pair of Tony Lama boots that I put at the base as a finishing touch.

You can find spruce trees here. There are farms in the mountains south of the city. They can be bought at stores and malls in areas thick with foreigners, but they are outrageously expensive. Even if I could afford one, I don't have any ornaments here. All I have is a single string of lights, a wicker woven wreath and a porceline Santa vase. That is the extent of my holiday display.

After I got old and had kids, we repeated the old pattern: Christmas tree shopping, presents under the tree, explaining how Santa could get into the house without a chimney. I promulgated the myth, and it really was fun to see the kids, when they were small, run into the living room in absolute awe at the booty that was piled up for them.

All of that is gone now. I have a certain twinge of longing for those days. Here, things are quite different. For one, it's never cold. It is always high of 85 and low of 75, with an 80% chance of rain, day in, day out, 365 days a year, year after year. It never snows. Santa never comes. There are no chimneys. And I am the only set of lights in the whole neighborhood, with an India apple tree.

Kinda cool, actually.

It's like being a big fish in a small pond. I am the only one like me here. At home, people have to put up Chevy Chase displays to get anyone to notice their effort. I just put up a single string of lights and the kids in the 'hood "ooh" and "ahh."

The malls are just like America now. They have miles of Christmas displays now, but there is not a hint of religion in any of it. Just piles of fake presents under fake trees surrounded by automatons acting joyful about...something. Mostly the displays are just annoying. They always stick them in the middle of high-traffic areas so you have to walk out of your way to get around them.

What's even funnier is the music. The malls are full of Christmas carols on the Musak systems, but they are painfully free of any of the traditional religious tunes, and instead, you walk around in a flop sweat in the heat to the tune of "Winter Wonderland." To 99% of Indonesians, concepts like 'winter' and 'snow' are about as foreign as it gets. In fact, one way I can get my classes to settle down and listen is to tell them what it is like when it snows.

I tell them about the different kinds of flakes. I tell them how quiet it gets when it snows. I tell them about the crunch under your feet. I tell them about snow forts and snowball fights and building snowmen, and they listen with rapt attention, trying desperately to imagine what those things are like.

Hell, if all this global warming continues, they may get first-hand experience right here in Jakarta!

When I was a kid, I was told that Santa flew all around the world bringing toys to kids everywhere. I was even told about how kids in other lands celebrated Christmas. Come to think of it, no one ever talked about Christmas in Indonesia, because Santa doesn't come here.

Truth is so much more interesting than the fables of childhood, but there's so much less magic to it. Maybe that's why people like fables. They just want the magic that they felt when they were kids. At least I can create a little magic with a string of lights and tales of snowmen.

Are you worried that your Christmas will be slim this year? Well, now you know it could be worse...there could be no Christmas at all.

Keep the magic.

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