Happily Alone on Christmas

Christmas of 2006 was the first I didn’t celebrate. I had already been in the ashram for two years, but I went back to Finland for Christmas the first year—a profoundly confusing experience for a freshly minted monk.

On December 24, 2006 (the Scandinavian Christmas), however, I was solidly in Northern California, in the middle of the redwoods with a handful of other “weirdos.” I wrote the following entry in my online journal:

Our Christmas started at 8:30 AM when Dave pulled up in his truck with 60 bales of straw and hay. It took us more than two hours to get it in the barn. I guess at this point, the straw could have acted as an inspiration for my meditation on the barn where Jesus was born, surrounded by the cattle and sages, but what I was meditating on was getting the bales in before the rain that was just about to start, and keeping an eye on Bhumi [our most ferocious cow] who was determined to block our way and get to the hay.

My mom called in the evening Finnish time (=mid-day in California) after they had eaten and opened their presents. I talked to my family, and they were in the midst of playing board games and getting drunk. I admittedly felt like worlds (or should I say continents) apart.

My Christmas Eve ended with a real yogi feast: Nama-shrestam cooked popcorn for the two of us.

I remember feeling weird all day, like something was amiss. Christmas was by far the most important celebration in my family, marked with many rituals that seemed as eternal and immovable as the Pole Star. Sitting in the woods halfway across the globe, I yearned for those family traditions and the assurance of belonging and normalcy that they brought. When still in Finland, I had never realized what deep impressions these kinds of reoccurring rituals leave in the psyche. I had an idea of myself as a closet yogi—always a little aloof, simply playing along, almost as if for others’ sake, but not being attached. In other words, acting like an arrogant fool. But in defense of my younger self, it’s impossible, really, to understand the extent of one’s attachments until removing oneself from the familiar environment.

Seventeen years later, things are quite different for me in 2023. My spiritual teacher is visiting his ashram in Costa Rica, and my wife is at her mom’s in the Bay Area. I have the whole ashram for myself. Just like for 55 percent of the world’s population (according to a hasty Google search, at least), Christmas is like any other day for me: the sun rises, I do my morning meditation, I feed the dogs, do altar service, have the same breakfast I’ve had for eight years (a green smoothie to-die-for!), feed the cows and scoop their poop, work, cook, eat, write, read, feed the dogs and cows again, meditate some more, and go to bed. 

The reason I’m not psychically yanked around by my childhood traditions anymore is that for almost twenty years, I’ve used the power of tradition and recurring rituals intentionally to strive toward my highest aspirations rather than accept rituals and traditions only based on my native culture and society. I use the rituals and the tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism to lessen my attachment to the temporary stuff and habituate myself toward spiritual things.

However, for the fear of sounding like a self-righteous asshole, I should mention that as far as I’m concerned, Christmas is the best of all Western holidays. I’ve always loved how, at its best, it makes the world a little bit more like it should be: kinder, more generous, grateful, more peaceful. In that sense, I’d like to make my every day a Christmas Eve (sans the over-eating and gift-wrapped consumer goods.)