In Jakarta, when Idul Fitri comes around, most of the friends my age, who are (or were raised Muslim), speak wistfully about traditions surrounding that holiday—mudik, for instance, when most every Muslim who was not born in Jakarta returns to his birthplace, causing massive traffic jams on the roads of Java; takbiran, the night before Idul Fitri when the air is filled with the non-stop beating and chanting of muezzins and most everyone who has a car or motorcycle takes the streets to shout their elation at having successfully survived a month of fasting, a practice that results in gridlock on the city’s main thoroughfares; and nyekar, when people flock to cemeteries to clean the graves of their loves ones and park their vehicles two- or three-deep on roadside, causing massive traffic congestion.
When first arriving in Indonesia, and witnessing these “traditions,” I didn’t get it—I didn’t understand what kind of joy people could possibly find in such traditions. But then I came to know the other, sweeter, traditions: walking around the neighborhood on Lebaran morning to say to every neighbor, “mohon maaf lahir dan batin”—forgive me for my physical and emotional wrongdoings”; going from one friend’s home to another to ask their forgiveness as well and to feast on traditional Lebaran foods: cubes of ketupat rice cakes, tender pieces of opor ayam (chicken cooked in coconut sauce), succulent morsels of beef rendang, and many more dishes plus various kinds of sweets. Always on the table was a large bowl of imported dates.
Maybe it was the dates that first got me thinking of the commonality of religious traditions and the similarities that Muslims and Christians share. When I was growing up, at Christmastime my mother always bought a huge wax-lined cardboard container of dates, which she used to produce a couple dozen round loafs of date nut bread baked in tin coffee cans, batches of date-filled cookies, and several large sheet-pans of date bars. She also made an alarming amount of sea foam candy, chocolate fudge, peanut brittle, hand-decorated Christmas cookies, Rice Krispie bars, bitter-chocolate covered Wheatie balls, and many other kinds of treats as well.
Were these treats for her persistently ravenous children? No! A couple days before Christmas, Mother (with a passel of elves assisting her, me being just one) divided up most of the treats she had prepared over weeks of time into numerous decorated cardboard flats, used lard pails, and gallon-sized ice cream containers as gift parcels. Some were earmarked for close relatives: Grandma McGlynn, Grandma Schauf, Uncle Mike & Aunt Maxcine, Aunt Molly & Uncle Jay, and Uncle Tom & Aunt Dimp. Others were our neighbors in McGlynn Valley: Jack and Agnes Stittleburg, who lived a quarter mile down the road; Larry and Helen Milfred, who lived a quarter of a mile up the road; Lily Poole, the recluse neighbor who lived in Poole Valley; and Jake and Loraine Mitchell, the never-married brother and sister who lived near the stone quarry on the way to Bunker Hill. Others were for friends and more distant relatives the family was likely to visit during the holidays, including my godparents, Bill and Mary Margaret Daniels.
Whatever the temperature it was on the day before Christmas—and sometimes it was far below zero degrees—these parcels had to be delivered to their intended recipients. And as soon as I was big enough to carry these parcels on my own and to walk through the snow to neighbors’ houses, I was the elf Mother assigned to deliver her parcels. And as years passed and I became old enough to drive and to maneuver the family car through snow-covered and ice-glazed roads, I would be sent off to deliver Mama Santa’s parcels to the more geographically distant friends and relatives as well.
Despite all the smiles, thanks, and oohs and ahs that the delivery of my mother’s gifts provoked, I truly hated that job: having to bundle up in long-legged underwear, heavy trousers, flannel shirt, thick sweater, stocking cap, wool scarf, rubber boots, thick mittens and so on and then freezing my butt off from having to park down the road from whatever loved-one’s house because the driveway to her house was snow-clogged, forcing me to trudge through the snow to her house, and then, after delivering the parcel, trudging back to the now-freezing car.
But that was then and now, oddly enough, I too think lovingly about those frigid days of Christmas seasons past. When first coming to Jakarta, I didn’t “get it” when observing traditions that looked like misery to me—traffic jams, blaring horns, chaos and congestion—but now I do…
Wendy Gaylord, a close friend who came to Indonesia as a student in 1976, the same year as I, was still a poor student when she met and married Parsudi Suparlan, a lecturer of little means at the University of Indonesia. In 1979, when they first began a tradition of inviting friends and students to an open-house at their home on Christmas day they could not afford to prepare a turkey and all the trimmings—much less the many wondrous treats my mother prepared prior to Christmas—so Wendy would cook up a huge pot of chili con carne instead. Over time and not knowing otherwise, our Indonesian Muslim friends came to accept that chili con carne was a special treat reserved for serving at Christmas time.
So, the point of all this is that whether it’s ketupat, dates, or chili con carne, the form of the food is not important; it’s the commonality of traditions that matters: that all these foods were prepared with love and all taste of that same love.