Making Chistmas

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Besides going to Shimla, Sarah and I didn’t make many plans for Christmas. We knew Shimla would have the advantage of feeling like home—cold, mountainous, maybe snowy. (We simply couldn’t imagine a Christmas spent in short sleeves in Delhi, or on a Goan beach.) But beyond that, we didn’t know what we would need or want to fulfill our seasonal impulses. This is, after all, our first Christmas together, and our first Christmas away from family.

We had pretty simple desires. All we wanted was stability: a decent, cheap hotel room we could count on to carry us through the Christmas season, and then perhaps a little nicer place we could go to celebrate our anniversary. With that in place, we could determine how we wanted to decorate and celebrate the season.

Reminiscing on our Michigan honeymoon, we reserved a pricy log cabin for the New Year and our anniversary celebrations. Then we checked in to what we thought would be our last hotel in Shimla before bussing out to the boonies on the 29th. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that the period from Christmas to the New Year is the time when all the middle class Indian families come to Shimla in hopes of witnessing snowfall. The hotels don’t quite fill up, but they do take the increased demand as license to triple and quadruple their room rates. After lugging our bags up to our new hotel, we learned that in order to guarantee a hotel room over the 24th and 25th, we would have to pay 1600 rupees a night rather than the originally agreed upon 600.

We were a little bothered by this: not because we couldn’t afford it, but because it was more than we were planning to spend and because we felt a little bit manipulated and out of control of our situation. We decided that this indeed was a battle worth fighting, and embarked upon an odyssey to find a fairly priced hotel room.

Shimla is very hilly.
Shimla is very hilly.

As we marched over the Shimla hills, pacing between travel agencies, phone booths, and hotels, I couldn’t help but think of Mary and Joseph as they crossed into Bethlehem. Like them, we were in a place familiar yet foreign, beset with the urgent stress of finding no room in inn after inn. I vaguely pondered the poetry of sleeping on the portico of the church, but Sarah looked at me, read my thoughts, and firmly refused to make such a statement.

As the day progressed, we began to talk about why we were fighting so hard. Thinking of Jesus inspired us to probe our motivations; we wondered aloud if this would have been a struggle he would have undertaken. “Are we just being greedy, or angry at feeling ripped off?” we asked ourselves, “Or is there something deeper at stake here?”

There are times to be meek. There are times to be silent in the face of unjust treatment and take what is given to you. But there are also times to be forward, to be aggressive, to demand your place in the world and keep at it until you’ve found it. The seasons of the Christian life stretch from Christmas to Easter: the extreme struggle of being born to the strategic passivity of allowing oneself to be crucified. And so far in India, we are still trying to find our place.

After a long day of struggle, we were blessed to find a hotel (perhaps the only in town) that doesn’t have special prices for Christmas. But the struggle was even more of a blessing. We were forced to work together and conspire actively and energetically against an establishment that wants something else from us. It is the most aggressively we have demanded to do things our way rather than the easy way while we have been in India. Now we have done it: next time, we will know that we can, we will know how much energy it takes, and we will be able to choose whether to fight our situation or accept it. It is extraordinarily empowering.

Nathaniel puts the foil angel on top of our mini Christmas tree.
Nathaniel puts the foil angel on top of our mini Christmas tree.

We bought a little Christmas tree, some lights and bulbs, and a number of little foil candies for making an angel to sit on top of the tree. Shimla is famous for its wood carvings; I suggested making a custom manger scene complete with Buddha, Krishna, Ganesha, and a couple of sadhus and babus come to honor the Newborn King. In the end, we decided that this would be a little over the top and a little pricy for a temporary display. (But if anyone wants to add an interreligious element to next year’s manger scene, let us know and we’ll be sure to bring one back for you.)

We said evening prayer, and sang some Christmas carols. We spoke of memories of Christmases past, and talked about important traditions, and favorite ornaments. Sentimentality and sacredness are fascinatingly intertwined: how deeply God can move our spirits through a memory!

Meanwhile, around us, it’s beginning to look a lot like a strange foreign parody of Christmas. The streets of Shimla are filling up with domestic tourists. A few Indian teenagers have purchased Santa costumes, and play cricket in front of the church and make loud jokes in Hindi. The media is buzzing about Amir Khan’s new movie and its Christmas debut. Vodaphone has a large display down on the Mall that has been playing the same thirty second sound clip over and over since we got here. These days, they’re also doing magic tricks and giving away “Free Sketch” to draw a crowd. The local Christians have put up a little tent across from the Vodaphone booth to promote Christian literature and remind (or inform) the passing families that the holiday they’ve come to celebrate is about more than snow and shopping.

Of course, Christmas has always been a strange holiday. Perhaps being strangers this year brings us even closer to that essential magic that underlies the celebration. We celebrate how God broke onto the scene, unannounced and uninvited, disrupting the established order. Angels assembled a hasty hodgepodge of shepherds to witness the tipping point of history, and midwinter debaucheries suddenly gave way to holy reverence and awe.

We have felt in Christmases past only half of the Christmas story. We have felt only the warmth of the Holy Family but not the cold of the stable. We have experienced the joy of sharing life but not the agonizing struggle to be born. We have celebrated with generous kings and nobles, but never rowdy shepherds.

This year we have no infrastructure to draw forth our memories; no elaborate, lighted manger scenes, no Christmas pageants to urge us toward remembering the true meaning of the season, no blanket of warm fuzzies from our family to block out the biting winter cold. All that we have comes from within us, a few insignificant fragments stitched together of our praises, our memories, our devotions, our traditions. This is the humble cloth we have to receive the infant king.

It will not be the most comfortable way to celebrate the season, but God never promised that we would be comfortable, and comfort is not what we were looking for when we came to India. We are searching for abundant life, divine life; life, breaking forth like sunlight over the varied mountains and valleys of the Himalayas. We have never been so acutely aware of the deep, insatiable need for Christmas.

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