I broke up with Christmas in 1989. It was my first year teaching in Bhutan, and I went to Kathmandu with another teacher over the winter break. On December 25 we ate rice and dahl and went to the Kumari Temple. The only tinsel in sight was around the picture of Ganesh in the hotel lobby. In the dusty courtyard, I sat across from an amber-eyed owl in a cage and drank chai and thought about my family gathering for Christmas dinner in Sault Ste. Marie. I was away from home for the first time. I was not sad in the least. I was in Nepal, under a banyan tree. I was in love with everything.
Years later in Bhutan, Christmas and I got back together. We had a tree and presents and dinner with a handful of resident Canadians and other expats. I felt no religious connection to the holiday whatsoever, but December in Thimphu is cold -- the sun drops behind the mountains at four o’clock and night falls suddenly – and it was a lovely thing, in the dark heart of winter, in a remote, landlocked Himalayan kingdom, to search for canned cream to make homemade Bailey's, and then gather for a traditional Christmas feast.
I was reminded of my grandmother’s stories of Christmas in the 1930s. She said they always got new stockings, a book, a bag of hard candy, and an orange. As a child, I had been horrified by the last item, unable to understand the rarity of a Florida orange in Northern Ontario in the Depression. But in Bhutan, I got it.
In Thimphu turkey was out of the question, but roasted chicken and mashed potatoes were possible. Someone brought Swiss-made cheese and Red Panda beer from central Bhutan; someone else made shortbread cookies. There was French wine from the Duty Free, and oranges from Southern Bhutan. There was even (alas) fruitcake.
When I returned to Canada with my five-year-old son, we continued to celebrate Christmas, but the stores swollen with merchandise made me queasy, and Boxing Day just seemed like a clarion call for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Now, Christmas and I are amicably divorced. I look forward to the season as a time of rest at the end of term, a chance to sleep in, read and write. I put up some lights. I buy some presents. I have dinner with whatever family member I am visiting. But I never feel much of anything for the day itself, except relief when the swelling of everything goes down, and yesterday, as I stood in the grocery store listening to a soulful rendition of “What Child Is This,” I wondered why this was. A lot of unreligious people still manage to love and look forward to Christmas. I thought about the warmth of a feast in the cold dark of winter, and the pleasure of anticipation, the longing for things you could only get once a year. I wanted to be moved by that warmth and anticipation, but I was standing amid towering tins of shortbread and overflowing bins of cheese and crates of oranges, all of which I could buy with equal ease in July.
It’s hard to have a feast in a culture of excess.