Spending December in Bali means avoiding the commercial build up to Christmas, the months of carols and tinsel in every shopping centre, the frantic shopathon and expectation of the big family lunch. However, it also means the 25th crept up with quite a shock, and I find myself lamenting the lack of a tree overloaded with baubles and crowded with poorly wrapped presents. Santa didn't stop here.
This year, Christmas almost coincided with the Balinese celebration of Galungan, a major holy day that occurs every 210 days to celebrate the victory of dharma (goodness) over adharma (evil). Balinese reflect on the harmony between the inner self and the outer world and join with their family and community to eat, pray and love. On the right side of every house is erected a penjor, a long bamboo pole decorated according to guidelines set by a high caste Hindu priest. Decorations must include agricultural products, such as rice and tubers, to symbolise man’s ownership of the bounty and his willingness to use it for right purpose. The arched habit of the pole echoes the holy Mount Agung, and is a metaphor for human beings to live with sincerity and respect for the Gods. It sure beats tinsel bought at Woolies and thrown over a plastic tree in haste.
At the base of the penjor is an ornately decorated spirit house, where offerings are made to the Gods. In the home of a newlywed couple, special woven banners hang from the spirit house and village members visit with gifts of rice, fruits and cakes. These presents are a gesture of support for the new couple, offered with blessings for a happy life together. A penjor remains in place for 35 days, throughout the extended celebrations of Galungan and Kuningan, after which it is burnt and the ashes buried inside the family compound in a final endeavour to produce fertility and prosperity.