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December 2018 Update

ADVENT 2018

In my advanced old age, it seems my boyhood memories are sharper, and recent memories are often clouded. My grandma used to talk of “hardening of the arteries”, and now people talk about Alzheimer Disease. I hail from East Central Wisconsin, about 50 miles southwest of Green Bay. I remember the excitement of Advent. My Uncle Bud would make Advent wreaths; there would be candles in the windows to welcome the Holy Family, and there was the feast of St. Nick on Dec. 6,  at which time stockings would be hung on the fireplace mantle, with a letter with Christmas wishes written to Santa. Winters were hard on people; staying warm in drafty old farmhouses difficult. Then, a trip to some one’s woods to cut a Christmas tree, and have it up and decorated about 7-10 days before Christmas.

Here in northeast Thailand, a long hard monsoon period is over, and the rice will have been harvested. At the first Sunday of Advent, village men and boys, often joined by Buddhist neighbors, build an empty crib, and lavishly decorate the churches or chapels along the Mekong River. Nowadays, we have electricity, so the only Christmas trees are in Church flanking the altar, and excited children crowd into Advent Masses, and allow themselves to be hypnotized by blinking colored lights, and glistening ornaments in the trees. The hardships of harvest are over; and people allow themselves to be swept into excitement and joy at the coming celebration of Christmas. Nativity skits and dances are practiced every night, so as to be danced and sung by children rejoicing in the birth of the Christ Child. Buddhist children join in the troupes of singers and dancers. Proud parents, bundled in warm clothes against the cold wind sweeping down from the Lao mountains across the Mekong River, sit and admire the Christmas plays, which are acted out during Mass, sometimes after the Gospel is read.

Village life is often hard and people usually make to with what they have, and only dream of what they will never have or see. Gifts of blankets, heavy coats, candy and food alleviate their poverty, and the catechists and village elders tell the children that they are recipients of gifts the Holy Family probably never received on the trek to Bethlehem and then into Egypt. Everyone, Catholics, Buddhists, villagers and passersby, are welcome to the all night party after Christmas Eve Mass. Stages are set up where children, teenagers and adults perform for all to see. Food is dispensed all through the night, and village men usually have a supply of bootlegged rice whiskey for guests as well.  For one evening and night, excitement, happiness and full stomachs testify to the simple faith and mutual caring of poor folks. Many of our guests and volunteers are visibly moved by the experience.

May you have a happy, hopeful Advent season. Christ came to redeem us all, but took the guise of a simple little baby in a cruel, poverty stricken milieu to bring love and happiness to us all. I was home for Christmas in 1985 when my mother died, and I saw a sign the Salvation Army had made, “Christ is the reason for the Season”. Corny, perhaps, but true.  

Father Mike                         

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