Frankly, Christmas is not my favorite holiday. For one, the gospels are nearly completely silent about how or where Jesus was born. (It seems so much of an after-thought, concocted to bring Jesus into line with pagan ritual and biblical prophecy.) Plus there is all of the consumerism. From I-Secretly-Want-To-Be-Trampled-In-Early-Morning-Consumerist-Stampedes Friday (now Thursday), the day after Thanksgiving (now the day of Thanksgiving), right on up to the post-holiday sales, that is all we hear about: buy, buy, buy for Christ’s sake! Then there is the zombified Right Wing Christian-Fox Network-Tea Party Klan, whose only sustained ritual seems to be complaining that Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists don’t want to be subjected to officially sanctioned displays of life-size plastic creches featuring life-like Scandinavian figures posing as the Holy Family. (Evidently Jesus was born in Stockholm, not Jerusalem, in the line of Johansen, not David.) Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favor of giving gifts and lighting candles. But, since our family normally also observes Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, another illuminated holiday seems a tad excessive. (We also observe Twelfth Night, the Orthodox Christmas; plenty of lights, plenty of ritual.)
I am much more an Easter Christian — actually a Good Friday Christian. I am deeply attracted to the belief that God shares in our passibility, our frailty, our mortality, our (the Hegel word) particularity. You cannot drag me away from the Triduum, the days during Holy Week leading up to Easter. Christmas service? Well . . . that’s another matter.
Still, were we in Berkeley right now, we would be thinking of Christmas Eve services at Saint Mark’s, planning Christmas dinner, and, after dinner, paying a visit to what is known as “Christmas Tree Lane,” located on the 3200 block of Thompson Street on the urban island of Alameda, just a short bridge or tunnel away from Oakland, in San Francisco Bay. There must be some households along Christmas Tree Lane that observe religious Christmas. But, that’s not the point. Because every Christmas season, without fail, the households along the 3200 block of Thompson Street drag the lights out of their cellars and attics, drag out the life-size creches, the plastic pink flamingoes, along with every conceivable Pixar and Dream Works cartoon character ever plastered on the screen and they light up their entire block, not in tasteful, subdued, subtly dancing and sparkling lights. No, when they are finished “Christmas Tree Lane” looks like Carol Doda’s Condor Club, all lights a-blazing, plus the whole of Broadway and Columbus, and then some. Garish to a fault, the opposite of pious, a cheap hotel district, if you catch my drift. (Wink wink, nod nod, nudge nudge.)
And, then, there’s Christmas morning, that magical moment when we wake up way earlier than we want to, when no one ever receives what they were hoping to receive, and, when, at least in Berkeley, there is never a White Christmas. No snow. Ever.
But I had intended this to be a blog about Christmas in Tuzla. Christmas in Tuzla? Yes, Christmas in Tuzla.
It may surprise readers to learn that, in many respects, Christmas in Tuzla is not unlike Christmas in Berkeley. Indeed, it was something of a surprise when, wandering into the Bingos, Merkators, and DMs, supermarkets that densely litter the Tuzlan cityscape, I am confronted by enough fake tinsel Christmas trees, full-size animated santas, Christmas tree balls, strings of lights, holiday baskets to make even a Costco jealous. It is really quite remarkable.
Of course, Tuzla is one of the few remaining cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a genuinely and militantly mixed religious and ethnic population. (We will be attending services at the Franciscan monastery this evening.) But, according to our local friends, that doesn’t quite explain the abundance of Christmas litter everywhere we go. Apparently, the observance of Christmas in Bosnia and Herzegovina goes back to the good ol’ Communist days, when Christmas was observed in every factory on every shop floor across a unified Yugoslavia. Here, some unlucky factory worker dressed up in a red and white costume and distributed gifts to awe-struck workers’ children and glasses brimming with Rakia were tipped, surely not for the Christ child, but for Winter, for celebrations of light in the midst of darkness, for the coming New Year, and for something all Yugoslavs know how to do from birth: the preparation and enjoyment of mounds of food with friends and family (always, always, of course, with just a nip of Rakia to ward off ill health).
(Anglicans reading this blog are, of course, free at this point to display a little jealousy if they want.) But, of course, this is actually much nearer the tradition as it once was practiced before Hallmark and Coca Cola got their hands on it. Family, food, celebrations of new life and light, and good tidings. (We will leave the Hallmark Christmas to our good friends at Fox News, whose souls are apparently so plastic and sugar-coated and polyester as not to know that they are observing an ersatz holiday, created and marketed by the Chamber of Commerce, of which, again apparently, God is held to be the CEO.)
But there is more. Several times a day a man shows up in Sjenjak, our neighborhood, decked out in Santa gear, carrying a brown sack — get this — filled with real toys. No joke. And he is distributing these real toys to real kids. “Ho, ho, ho!” I hear outside my window, two, three, four times a day. In our neighborhood, this Santa is the same plump fellow who has attended every Tuzla Sloboda professional basketball game for the past twenty-five years, who runs a BBQ stand across the street from the open market, where he sells tickets for the games, and who is also a devout Muslim. Go figure. But there is also a Santa who peddles his free wares to awe-struck children downtown, next to the outdoor skating rink, in a square decked out in Christmas cheer. It was this Santa who, impromptu, joined our demonstration last Saturday in support of students whom the Federal Legislature has denied EU scholarships. Can you imagine a shopping mall Santa in the US joining in a labor action while on duty? He’d be fired on the spot! But, here, in Tuzla, no one pays these Santas. Quite the reverse. They are not hired to bring in customers or ring bells for change. They purchase or receive donations for the gifts in their bags. They distribute the gifts, just as they march with protesting students, because this is the spirit of Christmas.
No. This is not Thompson Street. And it is not Saint Mark’s. And, yet, there is something very real here, something very much like the spirit of Christmas. Plus snow!