a merry christmas, or something like it

This was my second Christmas in a foreign land, a land where Christmas is on an entirely different day, so the locals make nothing of it.  But to be honest, I never get into a holiday spirit anyway.  Holidays are something that I like to believe don’t really affect me, though they might affect my relations with other people and the going-ons around me.  They make for themes to parties, but they don’t give me any sense of meaning or reality, no stability of philosophy or character.  Character should be built around something permanent, not a passing day, but I’ll admit celebrating a holiday can help you remember your home and loved ones.  So on Christmas we’re told to be all good, generous and lovely people, and that we should all be happy and family oriented.  And some people make an honest effort towards this, but after the month passes, after the New Year swings on through, everyone returns back to normal.  Back to the jaded, selfish, fallible little creatures they are.  I’m not saying I’m any better.  But I am saying that why do we reserve a holiday to fool ourselves into thinking we’re good people, when we can do this self-illusory emotional masturbation at any time of year? 

Maybe I just wasn’t chipper because I was so far away from home.  I wasn’t smelling my mother’s cookies in the oven, I wasn’t sharing beers with my dad while racing to finish off each batch of said cookies faster than he could.  We’re not huddled around the phone, calling various family members.  We’re not watching the fire burn or the snow falling or any of that.  Instead, I was sitting in a café alone in some distant land, most of my expat friends (from a myriad of countries, not just America) having fled the country back to their own families, and I’m taking relief in the cold night and chocolate bars and cappuccinos, at the very least in refuge away from my village.  I wrote that, but it’s not that I was depressed about it.  It’s just a matter of fact.  I did miss my family, but no more on that day than on any other day.  And if I had let anything really get to me, then it would get to me hard, so it’s better to remain distant about everything.  I wouldn’t see them again until August and that fact wouldn’t change whether it’s Christmas, Easter or Labor Day.  And who knows when I’d see my brother again, where I imagine he’s huddled in the forests of Alabama with his wife and baby girl, listening to her laughing and crying, swallowing their attention as she should.

Christmas Day itself had gone how I expected it to go.  I woke up, my cell phone chiming the alarm.  I put on my clothes, met with my Lithuanian friend, Ignas, and went to church.  Sunday mass in English was usually at 10:00 in the morning, so I was assuming that it would start at the same time on Christmas.  Consistency would make sense in a country where the religion is a small minority of the population.  But I’ve gotten used to things not really making sense.  There was a sign up in Russian and one in Georgian, with no sign of any mass in English.  I browsed the Russian one, since that was the one we would actually be able to make some sense out of.  It said 12:00.  So we went  to McDonald’s to wait it out, drinking coffee and eating ice cream while Ignas listened to my complaining about McDonald’s here not serving the classic McDonald’s breakfast, until the appointed time.  We ran into two other Peace Corps volunteers at that classy piece of Americana, where they told us that they thought they had read that the Russian mass was at midnight.  “I guess we’ll have to take that chance,” I said, sucking the little Nestle bits of chocolate goodness off my plastic spoon. 

Noon came.  We went to church.  The church was crowded.  The mass was not in Russian or English.  Ignas leaned over to me and whispered, “It’s in Georgian.”  So I spent the sermon trying to translate for him.  “Christ… love… but… people… born… bad stuff… good stuff… bring joy… happiness… born for you…” 

Ignas looked at me, “So the typical stuff.” 

“Yeah, basically.”  I looked around.  Everyone was completely engaged in the mass, the hymns echoed off the hallowed walls, bouncing around people’s heads and graven images of Christ and Mary. 

“It was interesting,” Ignas told me after mass.  “I mean because it was quite new, having mass in Georgian.  I didn’t even have to fall asleep.”

“That may have been the coffee at McDonald’s,” I suggested.

“No, it was because everything was different and interesting.”  He nodded, smiling.  We walked out of the church, following the crowd of people while hearing the choir sing “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” repeating the chorus in different languages, from Russian and Georgian to English.  We passed the two Peace Corps volunteers.  The wife smiled, looking at us, “When will they sing the chorus in English?”  “They just did,” I told her.  She looked disappointed.  We walked past the small clusters of jabbering people and into the sunlight, shining down in the last autumnal bursts of warmth. 

We walked down the steps.  I put on my sunglasses, glancing from smiling face to smiling face.  “Well, and what now?”

“Cigarette?”

“No thanks, I quit last week.”     

“Again?”

“Yup, again.”



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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.