A short story. A Christmas journey: from Bali to Denmark and back.
According to the Gregorian calendar, I was born on the day before Christmas. But in line with the birth star, so important for us Hindu, this date will always change. My birth star is Athira. It is the star constellation passed through by an imaginary line going from where and when I was born, to the moon. I am sure Athira has a great influence on my life cycle and on the way I am. For this reason, I dearly treasure its presence.
I am not going to tell you how long ago I was born, though. Ladies do not like to disclose their age, or to be reminded of the inexorable passing of time.
What I can tell you, instead, it is a story. A story of one of my Christmas.
Women of my island can be very good storytellers…
Christmas has never really been any special celebration for my family. Yet, unavoidably, the charm of Christmas has always been lingering in my child’s fantasies. I remember climbing up the fence of the luxurious five star hotel next door to my mother’s shop, and peeping inside the gardens, just to catch a glimpse of the Christmas decorations: reindeers, elves, colorful light bulbs and a mighty Christmas tree in the middle of the reception. I could just see its flickering lights reflecting on the glass doors. If the tree was real or not, I could not tell. The hotel customers looked all happy and ready for the special nights: Christmas Eve and then New Year’s Eve to follow! The same seemed to happen around Kuta beach and everywhere in Bali. How I wished to be part of that merriment!
As soon as I started reading in English, at the age of seven, I loved browsing the glossy foreign magazines, sold at my mother’s souvenir shop in Kuta. I was in particular eagerly awaiting the November and December issues. There I was, flipping pages and entering the realm of the real festive season. I loved touching the printed snow flakes with my timid fingers, smiling back at the ruby Santa and taking a long breath in front of the green Christmas tree, which was smelling like printed paper instead of pine. But that did not make any difference to me. I never really had the luck of enjoying the scent released by real conifer trees anyway. The tree on the page was dotted with twinkling colorful lights. Its presence, in the middle of a snowy land of little houses with smoky chimneys and lighted up windows, was enough to allow me to immerse myself in the cold and frigid winter of faraway lands. My biggest dream, at that time, was to spend my birthday, Christmas and New Year’s Eve there. I wanted to dress up winter-style, enjoy the snow and the ice and feel ‘cold’: something I had never experienced in Bali.
One day, close to my ninth birthday, I was busy with my favourite activity in the narrow lane of my mother’s shop. My eyes were focusing on a beautiful snowy landscape of white trees and iced rivers. ‘Denmark’ was the title of the article, depicting the European country as an attractive winter destination.
A little blond, blue-eyed girl stepped inside the shop. She bought some chewing gums and then she came close to me.
‘What is your name?’ she asked me.
‘I am Myra,’ I replied, distractedly.
‘I am Freja and I am staying at this hotel, this one next to your shop,’ she was indicating the big hotel right next door, the one I used to scrutinize from outside. ‘What are you reading? Oh, I see… You know, I come from Copenhagen. Do you know where is Copenhagen?’
‘No,’ I replied
‘It is there!’ and she pointed to the opened page I was admiring.
‘Do you know the story of ‘The little Match Girl’?’
‘No,’ I repeated, not very pleased of being disturbed by the intrusive little girl who was probably my age.
‘Myra, tomorrow I will come back and bring you something…’
She run out of the shop, without turning, without greeting. I raised my shoulders, surprised by the visit of this weird girl, but at the same time looking forward to the following day.
And there she came, as promised, holding a little book with pictures. Hans Christian Andersen: ‘The Little Match Girl.’
‘It is a sad story, you know, but I like it so much,’ Freja said.
‘Why would you want me to read it, if it is a sad story?’
‘Because it is so famous. And it was written by a Danish author, and I am Danish too. You can keep the book! I have the Danish version too…,’ she replied, staring at me with her sparkling eyes.
I blabbered a ‘Thank you!’ and, as she left the shop, I took the book and walked home.
I quickly devoured the little book, absorbing every bit of the story. On New Year’s Eve, the little match girl was sitting in a nook in the freezing winter night, trying to sell matches. Although it was extremely cold, she did not dare to go back home, as her father would beat her up for not being able to sell all matches. To feel warmer, she lighted up one match, and then another one. She started having some visions: a Christmas tree, a holiday feast and a shooting star. Her grandmother used to say that the vision of a falling star would mean that someone was dying and was going to Heaven. Suddenly, her beloved grandmother appeared from the sky. The little girl lighted up more and more matches to keep this vision longer. But the winter was unforgiving, the night long and chilly and the matches were soon all burnt. The little girl crouched down in a corner…and there she froze to death. Her grandmother carried her soul to Heaven.
I was shattered, as I finished reading the last page of the book. My eyes were staring at the picture of the little girl frozen in the nook, with all the burnt matches shattered on the floor. I asked myself why nobody did ever care of giving her a hug, picking her up and taking her to their warm house, allowing her to celebrate the merry season, the New Year with them. What a ruthless world we were living in! I projected the story into my own world and I truly suffered for the girl, abandoned to her sad destiny in the happiest time of the year.
I felt gloomy. I stopped browsing the magazines, fearing of finding out some other key for yet another merciless story in between the pages. A sad tale maybe coming from the lands I had been all along yearning to visit, just to have a glimpse of their magic winters.
I was sitting silently on the stool in a corner of the shop, and my mother immediately noticed my change of mood. She is a woman of few words, but kind, well mannered and very attentive towards me, her only child. I explained to her that my idea of Christmas had been ruined by the realization that it was not as good and as special as it seemed. It was not true that people behaved better during the festive season… neither in Bali, nor in cold Europe, nor elsewhere.
‘Myra, what you have just read, it was a story. But it is true that in life there is Good and Evil. Do you remember the endless fight of Rama against the demons? Or the tricks played by evil Ravana, as he kidnaps Rama’s bride Sita? And the ordeal she has to go through before being reunited with Rama?’
I listened many times to the ancient ‘Ramayana’ epics, read and told by my mother and taught at school. Yes, suffering was part of life.
‘Myra, would you like to join me to Tanah Lot temple?’ my mother asked me. ‘We could take part in the ‘Anggara Kliwon,’ which – for us Hindu – it is an important day. It is a ceremony where we can cleanse our mind, as well as the physical world in which we are reincarnated. Every time I took part in this ceremony, I felt energized’.
‘Yes. I’d like to join you,’ I replied.
We took a car to Tanah Lot. Once there, we prayed, offered incense and flowers to the deity Rudra. While people around me were meditating, I intensely thought of my Athira star, constantly standing guard over me. Afterwards, we enjoyed the stunning sun setting behind this temple, nested on a rock in the sea. I probably was too young to understand the real meaning of this recurring celebration, but I felt so much better. I felt relieved and part of a bigger whole.
I would say that this whole experience was my rite of passage. I slowly stopped desiring what did not belong to me, to my land and to my traditions. I started appreciating what I had and what my island could offer, during every season. I was no longer envying the cold and freezing winters on the other side of the world anymore. And I never went back to peep inside the hotel’s garden to spot a Santa or a decorated and suffering Christmas tree. I cherished the lush and rich floral fragrance released by the frangipani tree in my garden, and forgot about the clear and crisp whiffs of the pine tree I so much wished to smell.
I became more and more contented with my life in this equatorial land, where the rhythm of my seasons was punctuated by the slow passing of time. I was proud of our traditions, our myths and legends. I loved reading and listening to them over and over again. Christmas was, in the end, a day like many others. It was part of a bigger design: the constant fight of good over evil, and the confirmation of the power of love over everything, exactly like in the Ramayana.
Christmas became the enjoyment of a simple but tasty meal with my mother, while watching the mesmerizing Kacek (‘monkey dance’) in the forest, or a shadow puppetry show. It was the pleasure of following my mother as she was teaching me how to improvise some steps or to practice the incredible rotating movement of the Balinese dancers’ eyes and hands, to the sound of the hypnotizing gamelan. Christmas could also simply be a stunning sunset at Tanah Lot, in that little cozy corner I only knew.
‘Merry Christmas!’ I whispered to my mother, while we were both sitting on the little rock overlooking the temple.
‘Merry Christmas, Myra,’ she replied.
The gentle breeze created little curly waves, soon disappearing into the horizon. I was sure that my Athira star was smiling at me.