In any case, Dewa spoke one day of her experience as a Hindu, and as a young woman beginning to struggle with what she sees as the limiting effects of her religion and of her culture. Hinduism itself is, as a matter of fact, scarcely divisible from culture, the one informing the other and vice versa. Nonetheless, modern notions of freedom and of personal autonomy have swum ashore even on the island of Bali, and so Dewa spoke of the constraints of her society, the chains lain upon her by the traditions of her parents, from the duty of ritual to the expectations surrounding the nature and quality of her own love life.
Moreover, it was her professed opinion that the lion’s share of Hindu people really don’t know what they are doing when they perform their daily rituals and attend to their almost countless ceremonies and temple observances. They are simply acting out of habit, she said--not religiously, in the proper sense, but, if anything, superstitiously. The feast that celebrates the triumph of Dharma becomes no more than an occasion upon which one eats more than is usual--something very like the Christmas dinner. There is more of rice than ritual here, more of potato than of the Prince of Peace.
We are all alike, there is no difference. We all suffer the same poverty, and hide it within a feast.
Foods for the stomach, and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them.
We do not find it in the tree or the turkey. We do not find it in the department store window case or the glasswork ball or the twinkling of lights or a reindeer’s red nose.
Where is it then? And where particularly on Bali?
Whatever happened to Christmas?
Had I left it in America, clinging, like a child at its mother’s side, to familiar scenes and habits? Is it a place? Is it a song? Is it in the drive-by light show--mere electricity, winking on eaves and gables, strung about the shoulders of plastic snowmen and elves, Grinches and Cherubs?
Whatever happened to Christmas? It’s gone and left no traces.
Can it be so? Well, I decided to find out. I decided to find the thing myself--and to conduct my search, having no other option, amidst the sun scorched sands, the traffic choked streets, the dingy warungs, the sellers booths, the stonework icons, the raucous beer bars, all under the blaring, blazing sun that shines by day on my little town, the town of Sanur, on the sleepy side of the southern coast of Bali.
Remember the sight and the smell and the sound,
And remember hearing the call . . .
Ah, but give me something to remember. Give me something new, something to become. That seemed to be the key.
But memories have to start somewhere. If you are new to a place, an alien from afar, a stranger in a strange land, then you must build from square one.
I decided to start with a traditional cappuccino at Luhtu’s beachside café.
“Traditional cappuccino?” my wife objected. “What’s traditional about that? You have one every day.”
“Well, not every day.”
“Almost every day.”
“But this is not just any day. This is Christmas Eve day. And that’s what traditional is all about, right? Something familiar, something. Something you remember from year to year.”
“But you’ve not yet been here one year.”
“That’s just the point. It will be our first traditional Christmas Eve cappuccino.”
She told me I was full of it, but came along nonetheless.
And the first annual Christmas Eve cappuccino turned out to be pretty Christmassy, I thought. It helped immensely that the waitresses at Luhtu’s were wearing red Santa hats, and wished us merry Christmas as well--and several times at that. The sky was blue, the heat pleasant at just less than a broil, and there was a breeze whispering through the leaves on the trees, just enough to cool the brow every five to ten minutes or so. It was less, I’ll admit, that a Currier and Ives scene, less than the silence of a morning snow, but it would do for starters, and it was better than nothing.
After finishing our Christmas cappuccino (oh, and there was a cookie for each of us as well, about the size of a quarter--which I thought was a nice touch), we then embarked upon a traditional walk on the beach.
Now waves are not drifting flakes of snow, but there seemed something just very slightly reminiscent nonetheless, as they rolled peacefully onto the tranquil Sanur shore, kept time with our pace, spilled their white froth at our sandy toes.
It was the same every day, my wife commented.
Ah, but this was not any old day. This was Christmas Eve day.
“Merry Christmas!” called a couple passing by in the opposite direction, in a decidedly German tone of voice.
“And to you as well!” I returned. “Merry Christmas!”
“Selamat Hari Natal!” an Indonesian woman, also passing, chimed in. “Maybe you want massage, yes? One hour massage. Balinese massage. You like very much, yes?”
But in my mind I subtracted the second part--copied and cut--and clung to the first, pasted it to the day--Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to all!
Appearing also in the Bali Times was the continuing story of two Christians on their way to church--one beaten senseless, the other stabbed in the stomach by a mob of extremist Muslims. The assailants, in part three, had been sent to jail, and their compatriots were now protesting the unfairness of the thing. It was their feelings, apparently, that had been hurt in the first place by this Christian couple headed to their place of worship.
Remember how love was all around? Whatever happened to it all?