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community building | faith & spirituality

Christmas Ships on the Columbia

Initially, I thought I would not confess the fact that I really enjoyed a dorky spectacle that I stumbled upon today. It was the Christmas ships, and I know a lot of my friends look upon all things Christmas with a very skeptical eye. But on further reflection, I realized that what I was seeing was actually something a lot deeper than it first appeared. Let me explain.
It was dark and wet, and I was returning home from a long days' journey when I happened upon the yearly spectacle of the Christmas ships, out here on the lower Columbia. I first spied them from the top of a cliff. They were spread out before me like a strand of sparkling jewels in the still, dark water. The night was so quiet, and the river so beguiling, that I was captivated. In spite of the cold, I gathered my family, and we wandered down to the river bank. There, we found the banks quietly lined with people. Not great, boisterous crowds all gathered in some sort of commerce pen and eating hot dogs, like one might find at a heavily promoted event™, but random knots of folk dispersed along the banks in a self-selected order.

We walked down onto the docks, and heard the quiet hush of little bands of river people, secretly carousing, murmuring together, waiting for the strange benediction of sparkling reflections silently approaching from upstream. It seemed that everyone was awed into calm contemplation by the deep, vast, ancient night. This waiting for the light in the deep of winter is a very old thing among our kind. We have been celebrating the return of the light together since the very first of us came forth from the waters of the Great Mother's womb.

People all along the river smiled and nodded and murmured greetings to us as we approached. We saw the dark silhouettes of people standing on boats moored at the docks, and other silhouettes sitting and standing on back porches along the cliffs above the river, all gathered in their own way to watch the promise of renewal glittering on the water. We could see our breath, briefly suspended in little whisps of ether in the cold, night air. The water was so still, we could hear little bands of gypsies all along the bank, even coming from clear over on the other side, nearly a mile away. As I lingered in the inky, black night, the boats silently drifted past as if floating in a void. Long, psychedelic reflections of light streamed out into the mirror-smooth water beneath each boat, disappearing gradually into the darkness at the edges. I grew dizzy, watching them spin and drift by, feeling as if I, too, were floating in the void. Now and then, I could hear the voices of the people on one boat talking across the water to people on other boats. Sometimes, folks over on the island in the middle of the water called out to people they knew in the boats as they passed (this is a small community, after all, and the people on the river are very tight knit).

Like I said, at first I thought I would keep my enjoyment of this spectacle secret to myself. I felt dorky for being thrilled by the intertwining of the darkness and the light, this quiet, alien carnival of things made by humans and things born of the vast universe. Even the silly, choreographed maneuvers of the boats seemed at once dizzying, fanciful, and well, dorky.

But then, it suddenly dawned on me why I still enjoy this spectacle, even as skeptical and jaded as I've become about public festivals that usually turn out to be nothing more than empty, artificial displays dressing the glitzy windows of rotting commerce. This gathering was different. As I looked out and listened to the people communicating with each other across the water, I realized there was not a single corporate logo in sight. No banner advertisements, no corporate sponsorship, and nothing for sale. There was no admission charge to this event. No money changers in the temple.

Many of the people who painstakingly decorated their boats are people that I know. Some of them live on their boats year round in rowdy little bands where one is always welcome to drop by for music, shared meals and conversation. Others live up on the banks or out on the plains and come down here as nomads. And they've done this for each other, for their community...for me. Just for the fun of it. It is a gift to us all. They have not done it for money, they've done it just for the joy of it. Bound together by place and time, the people on the river banks and the people on the water have come together in their own manner, unmediated by the ubiquitous negative reciprocity that takes its pound of flesh almost any other time that humans get together any more. This is an authentic, shared community experience, arising spontaneously from a place in peoples' hearts that is as ancient as humankind. It is a place that is disappearing almost everywhere now, as public spaces are enclosed both within our communities and in our hearts. Our communal gathering places are enveloped by banner ads now, our goodwill is bought and sold like a commodity, and our celebrations become commercial enterprises swallowed up behind chain link fences. We sense on some level that we are being suckered, ripped off, converted from subjective beings into objectified "consumers," and a deep, almost unconscious distrust grows within us, but we still need to be together even if we no longer know how to be, and so we pay our admission and passively receive what is sold to us as Entertainment® because we do not consciously realize what has been lost and we do not remember that we have a choice. But every now and then, we create choices for each other. And that's what the Christmas ships reminded me of tonight.

The women and men who use their own time, energy, and resources to design and decorate their ships, and to pilot those ships gracefully out on the dark water on a cold, December night, are giving something of themselves to their community, and asking nothing but camaraderie in return. On the banks, carolers sing ancient songs together, asking for nothing in return but the joy of community. Called in the embrace of the Winter Solstice by the ancient yearning for the return to and the rebirth from the Womb, down here floating on the Water of Life, we celebrate together. Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, Yule, Saturnalia, Modranect, Solstice. Through time and space, and by different names, we float in this void together.