Saturday, December 26, 2009

Culture Shock Christmas

I returned home to the United States on December 11, 2008 and I celebrated my first Christmas in five years at home last year. But this is the first year that I have experienced the full season, Black Friday through to Day After Christmas Sales, back in the US, and in the mindset of one who is no longer wearing the badge of Wayfaring Stranger here.

The end result is that I spent far more of this season as a bemused observer, rather than an active participant. Sure, I knew what was going to happen, but none of the traditions were my own anymore. I saw everything as if through the eyes of an outsider. I found myself mentally reporting on all that I saw in the same way I would have if I had been in Madagascar or Vietnam, watching the locals celebrate the season in their way.

This realization came clear to me in the midst of Christmas Eve Mass. I and two other brass players were asked to play for Christmas Eve Mass at the Catholic church I was raised in. So I had a front-row seat for observing the congregation during the service.

Everything was at once completely familiar, and yet crisp and new. I wondered what this would look like to a Muslim or a Buddhist – the way people gathered to sit in seats all lined up around a central point, the automatic responses and prayers, the interspersed music, the decorations and the incense.  The symbols that lose their meaning when simply placed without explanation, the actions that have no obvious provocation (and, indeed, often leave non-liturgical Protestants baffled). It reminded me of the times I’ve wandered through Buddhist temples and heard the chants and seen the repeated bowing of Muslims in mosques, the prayers of Jewish people in Synagogue, and dances and prayers of people of different faiths and cultures during all sorts of life rituals.

I saw again with startling clarity where all the misunderstandings in the world begin. All those people perched in the pews facing the priest (and me) are beautiful, wonderful, well-intentioned people. They care for their families and I know many of them who go far above and beyond the call of duty to serve their communities. And then I saw the people in those temples and mosques and synagogue and ritual houses around the world. I saw beautiful, wonderful, well-intentioned people who care for their families and go above and beyond to serve their communities. I’ve sat at table with these people and I’ve celebrated their festivals and holidays. We all pray for the same thing - peace, health, and hope for the future.

Wherever and whatever you celebrate, I hope you take a moment to consider your rituals, and to fully celebrate their message, and how, in translation, they join with the message of all the others around the world in hopes for peace and health and well-being for all around the world.

I wish you all a happy and healthy 2010.

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