Christmas legends of Klong Toey
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Christmas legends of Klong Toey

If you believe Joseph and Mary were under a Bangkok slum's railway bridge, you may be right


Our kids love to tell the story year after year, Christmas after Christmas. Tell their version, the way their grandmothers and great-grandmothers told them. These are the oldest Catholic people still alive in the slums. Way back in the old Catholic slaughterhouse area of Klong Toey, you can hear the living legends told.

It goes something like this: Back in the day, when not many folks had migrated to Klong Toey, the Catholic fishermen surviving day to day along the river would migrate upriver from their villages. They worked here as slaughterhouse butchers. It was a job no others would take -- the lowest of the low rungs on Thailand's social ladder.

Along the low-lying river swamp, with the mosquitoes that bring dengue fever, these Catholics moved in and raised their families in crude shelters built above the pig pens.

And it was in this fertile ground that the Christmas legends of Klong Toey began.

Life was bleak. Electricity (one single bulb) was pulled from the slaughterhouse lighting. Water came from the river, and drinking it carried a risk of diarrhoea.

Municipal authorities had moved the huge slaughterhouse from the canal area bordering mid-city Hua Lamphong railway station to the port area of Klong Toey, just across from the Wat Sapan Buddhist temple. The temple was known in part for being a sacred and safe refuge for hardened criminals. The old tale goes something like this: If they had proven truly repentant, ex-convicts could live out their days as monks, never leaving the temple grounds.

There were no roads here, and the only transport was a small narrow-gauge railway ending at the temple. The Catholics both raised the pigs and, in time, butchered them. Every night they would load freshly butchered pork onto boats that transported it to the city's fresh markets. In this way, the mums and the children, along with their grandparents, helped turn the slaughterhouse into something of a Catholic family industry.

And it was here, during the heyday of butchery, that parents taught children their prayers, and each Christmas every child learned again of our Christmas legends.

Here is one of them: Long ago, a very poor couple came into the village. They were strangers to all. The lady, beautiful and radiant, rode in a wooden-wheeled cart with her husband leading the cart's oxen. She was nine months pregnant, but she appeared to be happy and serene, smiling at everyone. Her husband asked permission from the village elder to enter and visit the church. The husband's accent sounded foreign and no one could identify its origin.

The husband said that he and his wife were on their way to a small town called Bethlehem. He thought he could get good directions from the church. Said his name was Joseph; his pregnant wife was Mary. He spoke of how angels, shepherds and fishermen would one day soon become disciples, and of how there would be much joy but also suffering.

His wife, he explained, was destined to give birth in Bethlehem. And this birth would be to the Son of God.

Could the village please help? They needed to hurry up and be on their way. The village elder didn't know the way to Bethlehem, but he offered food. During those few minutes, he said he had just witnessed something mystical and beautiful. It was a blazing light. Just the sight of it made him kneel and ask Joseph and Mary for their blessing.

They would leave their oxen and ox cart behind, there by the church, where everyone knew all would be safe. After the child -- the Son of God -- was born, Joseph and Mary said they would be back.

Still unsure of their way, they saw a star in the east that they knew to follow. They asked the village elder for a riverboat to the city. It would be quicker and more convenient. The elder said he didn't know of these legends and truths, but his brother worked in the city's slaughterhouse. It was by the port. He would secure a riverboat for the two-hour trip.

Baby Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, a double-triple long time ago, not far from our Klong Toey slum. Or maybe this birth was closer still, right there under the old railroad bridge. If so, our slaughterhouse women would not have allowed pregnant Mary to stay above the pig pens. Under the railroad bridge, not far from the temple, would have been far more proper.

Our legends and truths say the baby Jesus was born in a stable. And, yes, maybe that much is true. But the old folks here say the baby was born under the narrow-gauge railway. And, if that's what you believe, that's OK too.

So, Joseph and Mary made their way to Klong Toey, where they camped under the railroad bridge. There is an old and not so nice song that begins: "Go somewhere else. You can't be born here ..." But it wasn't that way for Joseph and Mary, not on that night a double-triple long time ago. And certainly not under the narrow-gauge railroad bridge.

Centuries later, when an old French priest said his first Mass for the slaughterhouse folks, he somehow knew that he must say his first Christmas Mass right there under the bridge. He didn't know why; he just knew that he must. The poorest locals often stay there. It feels safe and sacred and protected. Also, it helps that it's out of the rain.

Our kids never saw baby Jesus or his mum, Mary. But the grandmother of one of our boys recalls how her grandmother once said that she saw Mary with baby Jesus. They were on the horizon, she thought. Maybe. She couldn't be entirely sure. The bright sun had muddled her vision.

It would take years for Joseph and Mary to return here for their oxen and cart. Some say they never did. But if you stare long enough at the evening sky, you will see for yourself. There is Mary holding Jesus and Joseph leading the cart. If you believe it, you will see it.

Of course, as we all know, the original story says Jesus was born in a small town called Bethlehem. And, yes, that must be true. But the birthplace can't be too far away. Just follow the old railroad tracks out of town, trace every bend. Eventually you will find what you're seeking.

But, to be safe, take along one of the house mums or wiser older kids. That way you won't get lost on the journey. n

Father Joe Maier is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey, Bangkok. For more information, call 02-671-5313 or visit

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