Winter, Anatolia. No filter, un-retouched. 2012 All rights reserved by David Hagerman
Dreaming. Not necessarily of a white Christmas, but of a more Christmas-y Christmas.
Today marks our fifteenth Christmas in Asia (for me, the sixteenth). And except for one Christmas, which we spent working in the Philippine province of Pampanga, it's never felt right. Nor does it today. It's not that Christmas here in Malaysia is bad, it's just that it's not. It's not anything special, it's a day like any other. For us, anyway, for me. It's been no different on Christmases at home in Vietnam, Thailand or China.
They say Christmas is a state of mind. I disagree. Thanksgiving is an American state of mind. It's about food and nothing but food (American-style football too, for some). A week of menu planning, days of shopping, hours cooking, a feast with friends, that you can conjure almost anywhere if you're willing to ignore weather and make an effort. Thanksgiving is a bubble holiday. It's less about what is going on around you than about what you make of it in your own home and your own kitchen.
Christmas is different. The holiday requires a build-up, a general atmosphere, a certain type of environment that extends beyond the boundaries of home. It's more than Christmas trees in public spaces, caroles blasted in shopping malls and an excuse to shop. I hate to use the cliched phrase "Christmas spirit" but it neatly sums up what, for me, makes Christmas Christmas. And what I've never, but for once, felt in all my Christmases in Asia.
We found Christmas spirit one year in Italy, in Piedmont, where we rented a farmhouse on top of a hill outside a small town. There, for ten days preceding the day, you could feel Christmas in the air -- at the outdoor markets we frequented, in the osteria and trattoria where we ate, in the wine shops where we browsed and in the town's piazza where we walked.
On the morning of Christmas Eve we drove down the hill into town to shop for two days' worth of provisions. We went to the butcher's, the baker's, the greengrocer's, the fishmonger's. The streets and shops were crowded and lines were long. But civility ruled the day. Locals strode along pavements toting gold-wrapped panettone, greeting each other with "Buon Natale!". No one pushed, no one shoved. Not a single driver honked his or her car horn.
By the time we got to the bakery, our last stop before lunch, there must have been 35 people in line. Except there was no line, just a crush of shoppers filling every inch of floor space in front of the counter. We despaired of having bread for breakfast the next day. We were living in Saigon that year, and I tried to imagine the logistics of getting waited on in a similar situation there. Or in the United States, where on Christmas Eve day even generally genial Americans can descend into depths of rudeness as the pressure to finish all shopping before heading home to family mounts.
We squeezed in at the back of the shop. All was orderly. When the baker's staff finished with one customer another stepped forward, often at the prompting of fellow shoppers who pointed in his or her direction to indicate to the staff who was next. When a tiny elderly lady hemmed and hawed over her order for a full ten minutes no one sighed, no one muttered loudly at her to hurry it up. It seemed everyone in the shop knew everyone else but when our turn came fingers pointed to the back of the shop at us, the strangers. I ordered in halting, horrible Italian and no one snickered, no one harrumphed. As we left, our backs received a dozen "Buon Natale!" At least half a dozen more greeted us when we walked into a nearby restaurant, where we lingered for two hours over agnolotti three ways, gorgeous cheese plates and a lovely bottle of dolcetto di Dogliani.
Dave and I haven't exchanged Christmas presents since early in our marriage, when we decided that we'd rather pool gift money to buy something for the two of us: a vacation, a couch, a barbecue, whatever. Our farmhouse-for-two-weeks had no Christmas tree, and there was no snow on the ground but that night, as I prepared a Christmas Eve dinner of pasta with walnut pesto, ocean trout stuffed with rosemary from the garden and baked on a bed of potatoes and mushrooms, cavolo nero sauteed with garlic until silky and radicchio salad dressed with good olive oil and curls of parmesan reggiano, it truly felt like Christmas. The next day too, and not just because we woke up to snow falling in big cottonball flakes that didn't slow until late in the afternoon.
We've tried to do a proper Christmas in our homes around Asia. Those failed attempts make for good stories. Maybe I'll share them next year, in a post written from somewhere not here. Somewhere properly Christmas-y.
In the meantime, a Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating, and Happy Holidays to all!