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With the arrival of Wintry December comes the memories of Little Jesus and His Advent, the celebration of Christmas. With the Christmas Day a fortnight away, Prasanthi is slowly gearing up for the D-Day when once again the Advent of the Son of God will be celebrated in the immediate Divine Presence of Lord walking on two Feet!

..and such an Advent cannot miss the 'pomp and show', the "gaiety and piety" divinity richly deserves. Prasanthi Nilayam traditionally witnesses Christmas with western flavour as teams from overseas make it a point to light up the Divine Abode to match the spiritual significance and grandeur of the occasion.

Last year, during Christmas 2008, it was the turn of the 'americans', a dedicated team from Region 8, California, to deck up the Divine Abode; and the team did it to perfection. Read on the story of their dedicated team effort that made the task a grand success... compiled by Ms. Sue Kelly Christie

Posted at 18:20:08 Hrs. IST on 10 Dec 2009

Well, their President – Barack Obama – told the world during his election campaign last year, “Yes we can” and after their job of decorating the Sai Kulwant Hall, Swami’s residence and guest house, the USA Region 8 of the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation can honestly declare – “Yes we did!”

Yes, they most certainly did! What an achievement and a singular accomplishment. Especially considering this is the first time the Americans have been accorded the honour of lighting up, for THE Light of the Universe, our Beloved Bhagawan Baba. They most certainly did do it!

I am sure that those fortunate enough to be present in Puttaparthi for the Holy Christmas Festival could not have failed to be impressed by the tremendous work of decorating the ashram for the Christmas season by the USA Region 8 (which includes Hawaii, Southern California and Las Vegas) dedicated to our Beauteous Baba.

Being here in Parthi always inspires in one a sense of awe and wonder, that being so, one may not always be so aware of the hard work and tremendous attention to detail that go into many of the wondrous sights that we could so easily regard as yet another of Baba’s marvellous “manifestations.”
Here’s a wee glimpse “backstage,” so we can show our appreciation to all those who put in so much loving effort and hard work, to make Christmas in Parthi even more beautiful.

The planning began almost one year before Christmas 2008. It was February of 2008, when the first planning meeting took place. There, an organizational chart, time table and initial design ideas were tabled. The theme was also decided – Christmas Gift of Love. This was all executed under the very capable leadership of Dr. Mike Congleton, President of the USA Region 8, and April Skrobiza, the Region 8 Christmas Decorations Coordinator.

An exciting innovation was unveiled this year – LED – (Light Emitting Diodes). Although this marvellous technology is not brand new, this is the first time it has ever been used here in Parthi. Due to the limited supply of electricity to the Ashram, lighting has never before been made a feature in the decorations. However, by using LED, USA Region 8 devotees were able to put on electrifying displays at a fraction of the wattage for electricity. This colourful lighting technology enabled our Swami’s residence and guest house to be aglow with wash lights which would illuminate the outside walls with a changing array of beautiful colours, each colour fading slowly into another. The colours were of gentle hues, giving the effect of a rainbow passing over the Holy Abode.

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The light genies were the family Bakshi! The Bakshis are experts at making commercial light displays. They also graciously lent their skills to the Sai Kulwant Hall which the team decided was to have a heavenly theme, depicting God’s glorious kingdom with angels and stars. The mandir was to be adorned with beautiful pictures of Jesus and Mother Mary. Also, Bible scenes about the birth of Jesus. In portraying the heavenly realms, the designers created exquisite spiral “ribbon” lights, plus a “Moravian” style star which was placed in the centre of the mandir balcony.

The Bakshi family’s lighting design drew a blessed sound from the lips of the Lord. “Beautiful!” He declared as He observed the display.

What validation for the Bakshi family, who are experts in installing massive lighting effects for Las Vegas hotel signs. So, it was with love from Vegas to Vishnu!
The core team consisted of a couple of dozen devotees who met frequently to discuss designs and ideas, also to report on progress made in locating the required materials and resources.

Phyllis Wohlberg led the design team which consisted of artists blessed with numerous talents ranging from painting to sculpting. Then the gifted group set about the challenging task. Some worked with their hands, while others carried out their tasks on computers. Then all of their numerous concepts were unified so that the decorations would be consistent. Jai! Celebrate Unity in Diversity! The simple, yet striking palette of the traditional Christmas colours of red and green with gold and silver accents was decided upon, as was the theme of using angels in the Sai Kulwant Hall.

Also in the design plans, were many small details that one might have missed unless you were part of the design team. For instance, as part of the decorations on the mandir windows, the designers wanted lighted candles on the window sills, nestling among the pine garlands. The team was told that there could not be real candles burning – associate lighted candles very much with the Christmas holiday, persisted, and found a new candle technology introduced a few years previously, making available many different types of decorative wax candles with LED “flicker” lights.

These candles looked exactly like real candles, emitting a glowing, flickering light from within. Because of the LED bulbs, these candles could stay lit for over 350 hours, using batteries. This was more than enough time to last through the entire Christmas celebration.

The three candles that Bhagawan lit to open the celebrations, were hand-made by a candle factory in Carlsbad, California. They were made especially for Swami and were placed on three tall, antique gold candle-holders.

So determined were our USA Region 8 Christmas Decorations group to make the occasion as real as possible, they even brought over real beach sand from Cardiff by the Sea in Southern California. Several bags of the sand were taken over by Region 8 volunteers. The sand was spread around the “Surfing Santa” display to simulate a real beach.

Continuing in their pursuit of reality – they wanted Snow! Some of their designers decided to install two snow machines in the middle of the Sai Kulwant Hall. These snow machines added a surprise element to the design and provided a realistic snowing effect during several segments of the Christmas program.

I believe someone in the choir which performed for Swami on Christmas Eve, when the “snow” began falling from the middle section of the mandir, looked up and said: “Look, it’s snowing, it’s Swami, it’s a miracle!” Ha! Ha!

Some of the eager young adults in Region 8 wanted to create something special for Swami. They were responsible for 30 beautiful red and green velvet banners, with lovely gold and silver trim. These added an elegant note to the mandir and gate columns.

The planning was going well, and the first all volunteers meeting was held on June 21. Here the majority of the designs were presented on MS Powerpoint slides. This was to help the volunteers with the assembling and installing of the various designs. Within a day of that presentation, these slides were presented to Dr. Narendranath Reddy, (of Prasanthi Council) who was very pleased with them. He suggested that the presentation be given to the Secretary of the Ashram, Mr. Chakravarthi, after Gurupoornima.

The Region 8 Service Coordinator. Rohan Balasuriya, was asked to take the presentation to Prasanthi. He also needed to measure the exact dimensions of the Sai Kulwant Hall and other buildings to be decorated, to enable the team to properly finalise the designs and purchase the exact amount of decorations for each area.

With Swami’s grace, the presentation was made to Mr. Chakravarthi, who reviewed each slide and asked detailed questions. Mr. Chakravarthi made many positive comments and agreed to all the designs. As you can imagine, dear reader, this was to the absolute delight of the presentation team.
In early August, with measurements now securely in hand, their purchasing team began the work of locating and ordering all the different items needed to create the designs that had been approved by the ashram. No small task!

An 18-page spreadsheet with details of all the design areas was compiled, listing the exact items needed, including quantities, sizes and suggested sources. This information enabled the purchasing team, which was headed by Task Force Leader Vimala Srinivas and team leader Roopa Sharma, to gather all the needed items – which included 24,000 ornaments, thousands of metres of garlands and hundreds of wreaths. Also specialty items such as LED twinkle and rope lights, statues, banners and snow machines! They were found in such diverse places as China, India and the USA.

As an added task, many items had to be organized into 25-30 pound packages so they could be taken to India as extra baggage by each volunteer. This was to avoid the decorations being stuck in customs, which had been a problem in the past. With the help of devotees in Bangalore, some of the green pine-style garlands were made into various sized wreaths and 10,000 prasad packets were filled with nuts, raisins and mango candy. The Bangalore devotees also helped with the items from China, which they received, checked, organized and then stored until it was time to transport them via truck to the ashram in early December.

In October of 2008, the team received wonderful news from Prasanthi. Swami had personally reviewed the proposed Christmas decoration designs, and He had given His approval. Dr. Narendranath Reddy said that Swami carefully looked at all of the pictures, making comments as He looked through them. Understandably this was the best and most precious news the team could have received, as they had all been working long hours to make this project worthy of their beloved Bhagawan.

Now that the purchasing team had completed their buying bonanza, it was time for the Construction Team to enter the scene. These talented people were in charge of the assembly and installation of the decorations. Meetings were held in October and November to plan what would be needed to assemble and install the decorations. Obviously there was much to discuss and many solutions to be found.

At the final meeting on November 16th the decorations group of over 150 devotees divided into teams, under the direction of Construction Task Force Leader Dushyant Mehta. Each team was assigned to handle the assembly and installation of decorations for a certain area of Sai Kulwant Hall, Swami’s residence, and Poornachandra balconies. The team finalized their plans and answered questions about assembling and installing their Particular decorations.

The excitement was mounting. Soon it would be time for India. Some of the volunteers had left in mid-November in order to participate in Swami’s 83rd birthday celebration, while others would leave at the end of November or early December. The first meeting of the USA Region 8 Decorations Team at the ashram was held on December 11 at 7pm.

The team had been allocated a shed – Shed 32. This shed was to become home to all the ideas, imaginings, mouldings, cuttings, stitchings, hammerings, gluings, oohings and aahings which undoubtedly emerged from the concerted efforts of USA Region 8 devotees in the upcoming 12 days.
Which reminds me of the song, Twelve Days of Christmas..

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me..
The chance to decorate for Swami….

Even though USA Region 8 devotees decorated the central portion of the ashram, there were decorations needed for other parts of the ashram as well. These were the Western canteen, the shopping centre, bakery, bookstore and hospitals. These areas were designed, assembled and installed by a team of experienced international volunteers consisting of people from Iran, Russia, Holland, Australia and Germany. The international volunteers integrated with the USA Region 8 Christmas Decorations Team and were guided by Tom Lahey (International Christmas Decorations Director).

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Mr. Lahey proved to be an absolute gem for the team as he provided them with invaluable advice, as well as creative solutions to many of the team’s most perplexing installation issues. Lahey and his international team assisted the Region 8 team in completing their installation task quickly and thoroughly with their expertise, according to a very grateful April Skrobiza, the Region 8 Christmas Decorations Coordinator.

She also told us: “From December 12 to 21, Shed 32 was the centre of our lives! It was amazing and inspiring to see so many devotees working with such dedication and perseverance. Many of the group went without meals and had very little sleep, but still they kept on with their work, thinking only of pleasing Swami”.

Shed 32 was to be the working home for the majority of the USA Region 8 decorations team and their volunteers for the intensive ten-day run up to Christmas. But, also working hard in a different building was a team of Region 8 ladies headed by Semali Balasuriya at the Easwaramma Women’s Welfare Trust building (located between North 3 & 4 buildings). The Region 8 ladies worked with the 18 young girls of the Easwaramma Trust whose ages ranged from 16-24. Together, they sewed all the pillar and pigeon guard covers. The Easwaramma Trust girls worked hard and diligently with the Region 8 ladies for almost three weeks to finish the pillar and pigeon guard covers.

Another group placed gift items into the 10,000 red, green and gold organza bags which were distributed as Prasad. A photo of Swami, a small bag of vibuthi and two traditional Christmas candies were added to the Prasad bag, which was already filled with raisins and mango candies. These devotees did all this, with the name of the Lord lingering lovingly on their lips.

Then came the time for the LED lights to be incorporated into the decorations. There arose a question of a different kind – to twinkle or not to twinkle? It transpired that these twinkle lights, which were purchased in China had a built in program that enabled them to run through a series of transitions, which included twinkling, blinking, dimming and staying on. Well, as much as we all love a bit of twinkle and blinkle, what was needed for the decoration team’s purposes was simply, staying on!

Lights in the Sai Kulwant Hall just had to stay on, static, no twinkle, not even the slightest blinkle, simply on! This created a dilemma for the lighting team, how could the lights be changed so as not to twinkle?

Refusing to accept this blinking obstacle, they spoke with Mr. Ramalingam, the head of the Maintenance Department at Prasanthi Nilayam, and he found a way, using a candle flame to strip the plastic from the wires and then he rewired the lights so they only stayed in the On position. Mr Ramalingam stayed up late into the night, stripping and rewiring many strands of twinkle lights until the lighting team, led by Daniel Gomez, who was the Christmas team electrician, were able to assist him.

Although the decoration team had many obstacles to overcome, there was much grace as well. All the volunteers had special Christmas decoration badges which they wore for identification. During the time in Shed 32 many of the volunteers found Vibhuti manifesting on their badges. Another sweet blessing came in the form of our Lord Himself when he drove past Shed 32 and gave all the team members car darshan. It seems that Shed 32 itself received some of the biggest blessings! Every morning Ganesh prayers would be held in Shed 32.

Rohini Haq, who was also part of the decorations team, recalls: “In the shed, it was amazing how all problems got resolved as quickly as they arose, showing us how Swami is always with us. The love we shared, even with the time constraints and work load, the understanding that everyone had for each other’s idiosyncrasies, the care everyone imparted with bringing food for each other or a coffee when needed, showed our Divine bond of Sai Love.

“I’d like to share some of my other personal experiences. One day I went shopping for bhajan CDs. The shopkeeper kept trying to push Swami CDs on to me. Frustrated I said to him: ‘Look, I don’t want the same old songs sung by Swami, I already have them, moreover, Swami doesn’t sing any more.’

“That afternoon in darshan, we had great seating, right in front of the mandir, we were all excited. Swami came out dressed in white. Swami then gave a discourse. Suddenly, He started singing. The words I had spoken to the shopkeeper earlier in the day resounded in my head like a bolt of lightning! Swami had finished one bhajan and just before starting the second one He turned His head a sharp left and looked right at me. Normally I sing the loudest while joining in the mandir bhajans but upon this day my throat felt as if it were choked. I was in tears, dreading the words I had uttered in the morning. With that look, it was as if my Lord was showing me, it is not He, who doesn’t sing bhajans, but, at His will, it is me who can’t sing them! As Swami’s second bhajan was coming to a close, my tears were now tears of joy, as I had realized our Lord is always with us all, listening to each word we utter, each action we do and every breath we take - in any part of the world. He gives us these lessons to realize His Omnipresent love, the only thing asked in return is Faith and Love for Him.”

Shelley Harrison, one of the team leaders, had these personal teachings from Bhagawan Baba: “Sometime in the week before Christmas, I prayed to Swami, ‘If this is not real, show me what is real.’ On Christmas night after his discourse, I left the Sai Kulwant Hall, walking down the road between the West Prasanthi buildings. As I came down the main road to retrieve my shoes, I saw a frail old Indian man sitting on a step on the corner. As I approached him, I heard a voice in my head say ‘Give him the Prasad.’ I wondered to myself, what will I say to him, what will he think? I walked passed him, found my shoes, then heard the voice again, ‘Give him the packet.’ I immediately started back to find the man. He had left. Disappointed, I looked up to try and find him and saw him almost directly in front of me, bent over almost double, walking slowly. I went over to him, bent over saying, ‘Sai Ram’ holding the packet in my hands. He looked up at the green packet with the picture of Swami showing through, dropped his walking stick and opened his hands to receive the packet. After I placed it in his hands he raised the packet to his forehead, with great reverence and joy on his face! I received a rush of joy from his joy, and we shared a moment of Divine love.

“The love of that moment stayed with me as I walked up the road. Swami had showed me what is real, what real service is, divine love shared by two hearts.”

Another beautiful teaching experience from our Divine Teacher happened to John Harrison who, alongside Yogesh Alekal, was the co-manager of decorating Swami’s residence and guest house.

“One experience stands out. Christmas evening, as I was walking to darshan, something in me cracked. I suddenly felt as though I had had enough. Not just because of the experience of this trip, but old feelings welled up from the past, feelings I thought I had overcome years ago. Maybe because Swami had not looked at me when I was quite close in Darshan, or because I was not feeling his presence inside: I don’t know. But I was ready to leave. I was feeling angry, hurt and done – no, undone. I was telling Baba inside my head that he had better do something, and not something subtle, not something I could mistake as my imagination, or I might not be a devotee any more. Just as I was having these thoughts, Dr. Congleton came up to me and said that Bruce Kintz (building contractor) and I would be sitting on the verandah. I think I blinked at him and called to him as he was walking away and asked if he was sure I was supposed to sit there. He said yes. I think I said ‘thank you,’ and he said something like, no, it’s Swami’s wish. I turned to Bruce and he said he felt like crying.

“Another important thing I learnt on this trip is how one can so easily misperceive things. I had two glaring examples that happened to me on that trip. I was really enjoying working with a Particular person. We did a lot of work together and I felt that this workmate and I were becoming good friends. One day, another fellow showed up and my friend started spending more and more time with this new guy and not so much time with me. I am ashamed to admit it, but I became jealous. I recognized what was happening but could not totally overcome it. One day I asked my friend’s wife who this new guy was, she said, Oh, he is my husband’s son from his first marriage, and his son is here for the first time here. I was stunned, and ashamed. But grateful to have a fault of mine exposed so I could start the process of accepting it and forgiving myself for having it.

“The other misperception happened while being seated inside the mandir. A seva dal was walking among us, waving his hand in a forward moving motion saying ‘closer, closer.’ We moved at once. Then came the inevitable, ‘closer, closer,’ we scooted up again. I was now right up against the man in front of me and was already wondering how my legs were going to survive the next hour or so. Then the same Seva dal stood right above me pointing down at me saying ‘close, close.’ I looked at my legs already pressed against the person in front of me and couldn’t imagine getting any closer. Again he pointed down at me and said in a firm tone “CLOSE” At this point I turned up my face, with a pitiful look upon it, took his hands in both of my hands and pleaded: I can’t get any closer. What do you want me to do? He looked me straight in the eye and said ‘Close zipper!’

Despite the facial colour I had gained after many hours working in the Indian sun, I felt my face redden. Oh was all I could say as I quickly corrected the situation. The point is that I, and I’m sure we all, misperceive things, it would behoove us all to get all the facts before we react to things, especially if the reaction is negative. It would save us all a lot of grief. Another thing I learned is that when you hear that small, nearly imperceptible voice in your mind telling you to do something, listen to it.”

So, it transpires, during Christmas 2008, while USA Region 8 devotees were busy decorating, designing, constructing and lighting up the Sai Kulwant Hall, Swami’s residence and guest house, the Lord was ever busy, teaching, coaxing, encouraging, protecting and loving his beloved devotees as they diligently went about their many and varied tasks.

The team were really blessed from head to toe. In turn, they had the opportunity to adorn our Lord, literally from head to toe. The toes were given a beautiful handcrafted footstool. April Skrobiza recalls: “Another sweet blessing came in the form of a footstool. Back in September, our Region 8 service coordinator Rohan Balasuriya was inspired to suggest that Region 8 offer a beautiful footstool to Swami as a Christmas gift on which He could rest His Lotus feet. After some research it was determined that available commercial footstools did not meet our specifications and quality requirements.

“We decided to custom-make a special footstool using the highest quality materials available in Southern California. A member of our Christmas decorations team, Adrian Kupersmid, who is a furniture maker, volunteered to construct the footstool for Swami using memory foam, a revolutionary new product that senses the body weight/temperature and automatically adjusts to provide the correct support. He also worked with Rohan to select a beautiful soft red velvet fabric to cover the footstool. The footstool dimensions specified by the ashram were 15 inches wide, 22 inches long and 6 inches high.

“After the careful handcrafting of the footstool was complete, Adrian packed and carried it with him to Prasanthi Nilayam. The President of USA Region 8, Dr. Congleton, presented the footstool to Swami on Christmas day, just after Swami had cut the Christmas cakes on the verandah. Dr. Congleton knelt before Swami and said ‘Swami, the devotees from Region 8 Southern California, offer this footstool to you as a Christmas gift of Love for You to rest your Lotus feet on.’ Swami nodded, and felt the gold fringe that was around the top edge.”

And the adornment of the Divine Head? Two of the members of the decorations team recall their experiences.

Diana Wenman from the Encinitas Sai Centre recalls: “My most revelatory and meaningful moment was when I saw Swami sitting under the Moravian star. Being a Christian, I grew up with the Star of Bethlehem leading the Three Wise Men to the manger and Jesus, and to see that star over Swami –Jesus – God of all the Universe, was an amazing and deeply felt experience.”

Corinne Codye of Wrightwood, California, remembers: “At the last minute we needed a different design for the central forward chandelier. The new design, invented as the artists and installers worked together, became a circlet of gauzy organza swags, adorned with hanging stars. Only the next day, Christmas Eve, as Swami came out and sat in this area, did we notice how this design had become a virtual celestial crown of gold, dancing in the symbolic heavens above his head as he sat on the verandah in His golden chair.

It is said when God does something, it is not only efficient but charming to all. Surely the divine plan was flowing through us to create such delightful effects as these, producing a true feeling of being an instrument in His hands.”

So there you have it, our dear reader – a little glimpse behind the scenes into what it was like Decorating Divinity for Christmas 2008. The Americans’ Region 8 really “Did It” from Vegas to Vishnu, from Broadway to Baba. From Christmas to Krishna. With Love, love, and more Love!

From the tip of His toes to the Top of His head Beloved Bhagawan Baba was swathed in the USA’s Region 8’s Gift of Love. Well, well do