By Deacon Art Donart
A number of years ago, I was teaching English at a Thai public school in a poor neighborhood in Nonthaburi.
My wife was teaching at an International School that followed the American school year and curriculum. So when Dec. 25 rolled around, she had time off. Christmas was celebrated in the gated International Community of Nichada Thani. It wasn’t celebrated in my neighborhood school, Prasertislam.
However, I was invited to explain Christmas to the students so as to enrich their understanding of Western culture. Prasertislam School had 1,300 students; about half were Buddhist and the other half Muslim. The school janitor and I, both Roman Catholics, were the only Christians at the school. Thailand is about 93 percent Buddhist, 5 percent Muslim and 2 percent “other,” including Christian. So Christmas is not much of a holiday there.
I bought an artificial Christmas tree and the lights and decorations for it, and with the help of the English Club we put the tree in the library and decorated it. Students asked, “Why do you use an evergreen tree?” I answered, “An evergreen tree never loses its green color; it stays green all year around. That reminds us that God’s love is always there for us, all year around.”
“Why do you put colored lights on the Christmas tree?” “We put them there to remind ourselves that although people are of many different races and cultures, all are beautiful and all have the light of Christ in them. We should all be a light to the world.”
“Why are we putting decorations on the tree?” “If we are to be a light to the world, we must make our world a more beautiful place for everyone. The light helps us to see the beauty.”
For me it was an explanation that should be, even though many of our customs are carried out without much thought or meaning.
Finally Christmas Day arrived. The tree had been moved out to the courtyard where the whole school had assembled. I was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Then I handed out a pencil and a candy cane to each student. I had purchased these at the Thai equivalent to a COSTCO or Sam’s Club. I had decided to give them a pencil each because they would wear their pencils down to a nubbin and those without pencils would wait to borrow a pencil so they could do their school work. The candy canes were a nice treat since they seldom got any candy.
My explanation for giving gifts at Christmas was rather simple. I had previously taught them the Prayer of St. Francis, so I told them the gift-giving was to remind us that “it is in giving that we receive.” The smiles and hugs and “thank yous” I received from 1,300 Thai students made a gift far greater than anything I had given. For the next five years, Christmas survived at Prasertislam. They would drag out the tree and decorate it and Santa would dutifully show up and hand out gifts. In my absence, my friend Susan would take care to see that Santa was there. If I were there, then I’d be Santa again.
Lee, her Thai nickname, sent me an e-mail asking for an explanation of Christmas. She had volunteered to help me two days a week while I taught English at Prasertislam for the 2005-06 school year. Now she is teaching at a Thai school in Bangkok. I told her Christmas could be a Buddhist holiday. To be a Buddhist, you do not have to give up any of your previously held beliefs. This is why Buddhism is so confusing to Westerners.
Actually, Christmas fits very well. Buddha became enlightened and out of compassion shared his path to enlightenment with the world. God send Jesus to save us. We celebrate this gift and in doing so we work to become gift to one another. Just as the Buddha and Jesus are a light to the world, so must we be a light to the world.
(Deacon Art Donart is a member of Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton.)