There are some things that I really miss about England such as ‘fish ‘n’ chips’ and a pineapple fritter served in newspaper, Cornwall and the sea but most of all I miss Christmas. Despite the awesome commercialism it is truly a miracle; a day, as I remember it when people let go and open their hearts to family, friends and strangers. Of course, so much of it is about presents, both the giving and receiving. The excitement of stockings, Father Christmas, the preparation beforehand, secrets, the possibility of snow, stuffing, marzipan on the Christmas cake, carol singing and for some, the Christmas service. In my overwhelming memory of christmas it is the day of Christ whether you attend a church service or not. Perhaps I say that because the abundance of food, giving, warmth and collective goodwill creates such a magical atmosphere and such joy that you can believe in the miracle of no separation; that we are all an expression of God.
I came to appreciate Christmas most when I began living in Russia where Christmas is celebrated according to a different calendar and in a slightly different way. Here the 24th – 26th December are ordinary working days. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are the biggest holidays but nothing has ever felt so close to filling the country with a miracle as Christmas at home. It is something to be treasured.
In Altai, various religious figures are preaching to win over the hearts and minds of the indigenous Turkic people. Last Christmas in Ongudai a priest from the ‘New Life’ religious community held a concert for the local community on Christmas Day and gave presents to the children. When asked whether anyone present was ready to accept the love of God into their hearts a young Altai boy walked up to the priest brimming over with excitement. Unfortunately, he was at that moment told to admit that he was a lost ‘sinner’. The actions of religious groups such as these are a real bone of contention in the Altai among the indigeous people, particularly when influence is brought to bear upon children. I felt awfully for the young boy and really couldn’t reconcile the idea of ‘sin’ and ‘seperation’ which are associated with loneliness and punishment with my experience of Christmas.
For some reason, the story of the young boy who must have been so unexpectedly pained to learn that he was a ‘sinner’ stuck with me and reminded me of a text I had recently read whilst looking at interpretations of the archer figure in Altai rock art. The text referred to languages in which the word ‘sin’ had been associated with ‘missing the mark’ in archery. Archery was described in the text as a spiritual and a physical discipline and ‘sinning’, ‘missing one’s mark’ was alikened to ‘making a mistake’; failing in some way to align one’s actions with one’s spiritual principles; separation of a kind, but not the terrible loneliness and fear that must have been instilled in the little boy who opened his heart on our Christmas day.
Near where the boy lives there are some rocks on which there are the most exquisite petroglyphs of Turkic archers. I came across them one way, quite by accident and was so moved by their beauty that it stopped me in my tracks and my heart leaped. I have only been moved by such beauty when I went to the ballet at the ‘Bolshoi Theatre’ the day the queen visited Moscow. I wanted to find that boy, take him to the rocks and say: ‘No sinner are you! Always have the strength to shoot the arrow of your soul straight, as did the ancestors of this land. Always have the heart to be a good marksmen’.
Yet I doubt he even knows these petroglyphs exist. Their exact location is never revealed as a way of to protecting them and the opportunity to visit rock art sanctuaries is as a rule, the priviledge of the visitor/tourist. There is no-one to read them as we read the bible. The emerging religous groups will continue to tell the children they are sinners despite the high suicide rates among the younger population and it will indeed be a miracle if the petroglyphs survive the next ten years of development in Altai with no cultural heritage protection in place. I don’t claim to know the mysteries of the ancient symbols nor to know the subtle notes that have been carried on the heart strings of this Turkic people through time, but I do know that the simple values of ‘sharing’, ‘giving’, ‘doing for others’ and helping each other out are characteristic of this people and that’s a little bit like how I remember Christmas in England. Keep it special.
Everywhere there are those who are keeping faith and maybe that is the most important thing; keeping the arrow poised……