When you wake to the sound of tropical birds, and soon find yourself sweaty from the heat and humidity, and when you look out over the palm tree tops to the Arabian Sea as you hear the Names of Devi wafting upwards from the temple below, it takes a little time before you register that it is the morning of Christmas Eve.
You’ve come from half a world away, and left behind you there the tinkling of Salvation Army Santa Claus bells, the innocent voices of children carolling, the smell of pine trees and lebkuchen and nutmeg on eggnog, the glitter of tiny Christmas tree lights, and the crunch of snow beneath your boots.
You are in Amritapuri in South India,. Amma’s home ashram. There are several thousand other people here to spend the holiday season with Mother, many of them Christians. You wonder: will it ever feel like Christmas Eve? Christmas?
There are no signs of the season around. No mistletoe; no evergreen boughs; no red and white Santa Claus cards stuck on the bulletin boards; no green glittery letters strung across the entryway bidding everyone MERRY CHRISTMAS.
But night draws near, and there’s a flurry of activity. Word spreads, as it does here, not by public announcement but just by word of mouth: “There’s a programme tonight! Mother will be there!”
You finish dinner, wash your plate, pick your spot in the hall-as close as possible to the chair Amma will sit in. You wait. Programmes happen whenever it is that Mother arrives; there’s no set time. You wait and look around, and see your first sign of Christmas: a small green tree occupies the Southwest corner of the stage apron, and it is hung with tiny decorations: handmade Amma dolls, Krishna dolls, Devi dolls, and a single string of tiny many-coloured lights.
It was beginning to feel a bit like Christmas.
There is a sudden surge of excitement and everyone jumps up…Amma is coming!
No; not exactly. She makes a detour to the western canteen, where the café workers are still cleaning up from dinner, and are also preparing a special treat: Christmas cake. She goes inside, checks the pots and pans and garbage pails; She heads over to the newly acquired Cappuccino machine and watches while a cup is brewed especially for Her. Amma turns back towards the doorway-the path is of course now completely packed with people who have crammed in to enjoy this unexpected visit. But as soon as Amma’s intent is clear, a passage opens, and She strides briskly to the nearby programme hall.
Wherever Amma walks, two apparently contradictory things happen: the crowd surges towards Her and She is engulfed, and a passageway appears before Her, maybe only 3 metres long and one metre wide, but it does open before Her, and She can progress to Her goal.
In this case, that goal is a chair on a raised platform. The first time She saw this “throne”, She turned away from it and sat on the floor! Her natural humility would not allow Her to be raised up so high: too majestic, too imperial. However, the broken hearts of the 99.9% of the people in this huge hall who could not see Her
when She sat in comfort on the floor impelled Her to forego that “self-indulgence”. Clearly feeling awkward and apologetic, She climbed up the ramp and sat on the high seat-and the grateful hearts of 100% of the people were convincing enough that now She goes obediently to this seat, passing up Her own preferences in order to-as always-give joy to Her children.
No sooner had Mother sat than the small children began streaming towards Her. No; that’s not accurate. They couldn’t stream, since every inch of floor space was filled with people sitting close. But they climbed through, around, over-some were lifted up and handed along-till they reached Her outstretched arms. Many of the little ones jumped up close and kissed Her cheek; a few of the well-taught ones paused for a prostration before climbing up and kissing Her.
To each little one, Mother gave a kiss on cheek or head, and a sweet, and occasionally some lucky child would end up in Amma’s lap for a few moments.
Suddenly, the big new wooden doors on the stage rolled open, and there sat several of Amma’s western children. Guitars and harmonium-a reflection of the west/east mix that is this ashram-played together a song new to most of the people, but so easy that soon almost everyone joined in. It was an Italian song with only three words, and they meant, “Come, Lord Jesus.” For those sceptics who wonder whether Christmas can happen in an apparently Hindu ashram, here is the answer: yes. Soon, people throughout the hall-Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists-were singing together, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Amma says that the message of Jesus is love and compassion; in this, there is nothing at variance with the teachings of any of the true Masters, no matter what religion later descended from them.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” rang out next-and this traditional Christmas carol could be heard in various languages at once as the French, the Germans, the English, the Italians, the Finns-all joined in with their own familiar words. All came together on the Latin chorus, however: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”
It was beginning to feel a bit more like Christmas.
Amritapuri ashram is blessed with a Dutch resident who is an opera singer. This Christmas eve, she stood before her ashram family and Mother and sang three solos; two were familiar Christmas favourites. “How Beautiful are the Feet”, from Handel’s Messiah, praises the bringers of the good news of God’s Love; for Amma’s children, this aria took on a new dimension this Christmas Eve. Next “Ave Maria”, recalling the angel’s appearance to Mary to tell her that she would bear the Christ Child, stirred memories of home-and-family Christmases for many of Mother’s western children, residents and visitors alike.
It was beginning to feel even more like Christmas.
After a classical Indian dancer presented the lilas of Siva, there came a commotion from over near the café-it was Santa Claus! At only minutes past midnight; Christmas at Mother’s ashram began when, with a robust ho-ho-ho, Saint Nick in a red and white suit, white beard, and red and yellow stocking cap made his way through the crowd till he reached Mother. He was followed by café workers bearing huge trays of Christmas cake. Mother called out, “Western children only!”
This way, She could ensure that those who had left home and hearth, tradition and family, to be with Her on Christmas, would receive the gift of Her Christmas prasad directly from Her own hand. Others stepped aside, making room for the westerners (here that word isn’t geographical; it really means, “people from other countries”); they-residents and visitors alike-came one by one to Mother, who handed each a piece of home-baked cake, while Santa stood nearby, delighting especially the smaller children! (Don’t worry; of course in the end everyone received Christmas cake!)
Christmas day was a Tuesday-the day Mother spends with Her ashramites, meditating, giving satsang, answering questions, and serving lunch. The very first question came from one of Mother’s “western” daughters, who asked Amma to talk a little about Jesus. After Mother spoke about Jesus’ basic message of love and compassion, She asked that Her children from the West, who have studied the Bible, should talk about the real meaning of Christmas. Perhaps because in this ashram there is a special awareness of the deep meaning of God becoming present to us by incarnating, those who responded to Mother’s request emphasized Christmas as a day to celebrate the birth of the Divine on Earth, or of the Word becoming flesh. One resident spoke eloquently about the kinship she sees between Jesus and Amma: “Her message is the same as Christ’s-love, compassion. She’s the embodiment of love and She is constantly reminding us that love, that compassion, that Divinity, is within us. So we are fortunate to have the message of Christ and the message of Amma as one in our lifetimes.”
Mother always serves lunch on Tuesdays, and Christmas Day was no exception. What was a bit different was that on this particular Tuesday Mother called the westerners first, another small gesture acknowledging that so many had chosen to come far from home and spend their special holiday with Her. As they approached Her to receive their plates, something else a little different happened: it is usual that while plates are being passed, the community chants “Om Namah Shivaya.”
On Christmas, a few voices started singing “Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming”; recognizing the melody, more singers joined in, with words from various European languages.
As hundreds continued to come forward for their plates, the celebration continued, with one Christmas carol after another.
It definitely felt a lot like Christmas.