Beyond its glittering façade of rampant commercialism, Christmas in Asia is well feted in a spirit sometimes religious, sometimes distilled and often unintentionally satirical
Nothing says Christmas quite like a shirtless male model in a Santa cap posing for beefcake pics with female shoppers in front of cardboard snowmen in the middle of a shopping mall.
Sorry, I was just being sarcastic and shit.
Let’s try this again.
Nothing says Christmas quite like a mural in a mall window showing a retro punk in a dog collar holding a candle beside the words HAPPY HOLIDAYS.
Okay. Let’s quit slam dancing around the subject and dive right into the mosh pit of kitsch, misunderstandings, and fanatical devotion.
By early November the malls of Asia are dressed up in Christmas drag with towering trees out in front. The trees are strung with fairy lights and the facades are Vegas-bright with images of sleigh-riding Santa pulled by his reindeer. Inside the malls, shops, and bigger supermarkets, Christmas carols like “Joy to the World” and other seasonal songs such as “Frosty the Snowman” play on an endless repeat. (Beware the techno version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” sure to haunt you on your deathbed.) Some malls even have their own personal Santas, complete with pillow-stuffed bellies, for kids.
These seasonal themes play out in bars and restaurants with papier-mâché snowmen, waitresses wearing Santa caps and posters of wintry scenes a world away from the tropics.
At times you could be forgiven for thinking it’s almost like a satire of Christmas and conspicuous capitalism. But no, that would be reading too much into it. Like Valentine’s Day, hip-hop and so many other Western customs, they’ll never get it quite right in Asia.
For all the razzmatazz, it’s hard to have a white Christmas in Asia when it’s 30 Celsius, the sun is on high beam, the foliage is green, and there’s not a pine tree or ski hill in sight.
But in the more Christian countries like the Philippines and South Korea, where they actually know what the day is supposed to represent, the ceremonies unfold with all their age-old fervor and rapture intact.
REVERENTIAL CHRISTMAS IN THE PHILIPPINES
Asia’s most Catholic country venerates the supposed birth of the messiah in a manger in Bethlehem with pageantry and zealotry in what is believed to be the longest such celebration on the planet.
Christmas begins in earnest on December 16 with a 4am Catholic mass, also known as the “mass of the rooster,” and does not end until the Feast of the Kings on January 6.
From the 16th onwards, the mass will be repeated every morning until the finale on Christmas Eve. Among Filipinos, the prevailing belief is that if you attend all nine masses God will grant you a wish. After the midnight mass, families congregate to enjoy a feast of seasonal favorites like ham, cheese and suckling pig.
Besides the Christmas tree, the most prevalent symbol of the season – all across the archipelago – is the parol. These lanterns, often made in the shape of a star to symbolize the guiding light that brought the three wise men to find the infant Jesus, are radiant creations, sometimes made of natural materials such as cornhusks.
Throughout the Yuletide season, children go caroling from door to door to earn some pocket money while adults will make the rounds to raise their voices and funds to help the needy and disadvantaged.
That’s the real spirit of Christmas – sharing and self-sacrifice – a lesson lost on all the trendy atheists who practice, with the fanaticism of fundamentalists, the worship of fetishes and idols like iPads and brand-name trainers.
RAZZLE-DAZZLE CHRISTMAS IN THAILAND
For the expats and travelers of Western origins in Thailand, December 25 should be declared a national drinking holiday with Boxing Day designated as a mandatory sick-and-nursing-a-concussive-hangover day.
Christmas is not actually an official holiday in the “Land of Wiles” but most expats will take it off anyway or be granted a little leniency by their Thai employers.
In the run up to the big day, Bangkok takes on all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas in the West. Shopping malls are lit up like casinos. Office buildings put up trees. Even convenience stores deck the walls with strips of tinsel.
It’s festive all right – in a gaudy, kitsch kind of way which appeals to that Asian love of ostentation – with a few Thai spins, like huge gift hamper baskets containing many of the same foodstuffs and other items donated to monks in orange plastic buckets. Few would know anything about the origins of the occasion.
Since Thais enjoy any excuse for a party – the words for “work” and “party” are both ngan – there are loads of company outings and get-togethers throughout the month.
Plenty of hotels offer special dinners and packages for Christmas Eve as well as Christmas day buffets in the realm of 1,500 to 2,000 baht or more. They are mostly for families. For other expats and younger wanderers the pubs of English and Irish descent provide the lubrication that greases conversations and propels high spirits into overdrive. Many of them also offer Christmas buffets for a lot less than the hotels. Some are pretty good. Some are incredibly awful, with dried-out turkey, cranberry sauce from a tin, and gravy that may have leaked out from a crankcase, but chances are all the drinks will short-circuit your taste buds anyway.
For 2014 the most tastebud-tempting, affordable choice I’ve come across thus far is at Molly Malone’s Irish Pub which boasts the “Ultimate Christmas Carvery” featuring such choices “Christmas Five Spice Roasted Goose” for a main, with “Spiced Pumpkin Soup with Smoked Bacon” for a possible starter, and “Xmas Pudding with Brandy Custard” on the dessert menu. Good value for 995 baht.
Last year I went to Hemingway’s for a group dinner on December 25 and that was a decent deal. They had a special menu with many different dishes priced in the range of 500 baht. Check it out or don’t. See if I care.
WEIRD CHRISTMAS IN SOUTH KOREA
In East Asia, South Korea, where 30% of the folks are Christians, is the only country to make Christmas a national holiday.
For the devout it’s still a religious occasion, and many younger Koreans also like caroling to their soul’s content. On the night of December 24th, churchgoers attend a mass before returning home to give gifts, usually in the form of cash.
In a strange local spin, Christmas evening is also something of a lovers’ night out – anything to escape from those meddling Korean relatives (I know the drill). Far from the West, where cities are ghost towns on this family day, the larger urban centers in South Korea are sprightly affairs with special shows at theme parks and all sorts of other activities with Yuletide themes.
In the weird shit category, South Korea is rebuilding a controversy-plagued Christmas tree near the DMZ with their insane neighbors from the north. According to The Guardian, “The atheist North viewed the light show as a provocative display of psychological warfare and threatened to fire shells at the tower unless it was removed.” Will these saber-ratting cretins never shut the fuck up?
That wasn’t very pacifistic of me. Hail Mary full of grace. Repenting for my sins, onwards Christian soldiers…
Seoul, to be sure, will make a flashy impression on your retinas and features the Lotte World Christmas Festival throughout December at the theme park, which coincides with the country’s biggest shopping event, the Korea Grand Sale and the sacred profanity of Christmas in Asia.
But for a more eclectic experience with a homier vibe Busan is the place to be. At the Busan Christmas Tree Festival, now in its sixth year, the streets are a jamboree of musicians and other performers. You can also “collect love coins” – tokens of the Asian belief that you really can put a price on anything. The couples and coupling theme also plays out in the promoting of fertility and marriage as they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by obeying that Christian dictate “to be fruitful and multiply.” Hallelujah!
As a centerpiece for the festivities to orbit around, a 20-metre-high tree stands like a glimmering sentinel bedecked with wishes from the devout who could easily rival any fundamentalist Christians in the American South for their conservative politics and short-sighted bigotry.
In this chilly weather, with the sky shedding snow like goose down from a burst pillow, the wind can whip up a whirlwind of memories of all those ghosts of Christmases past and present.
SCREW THE SCROOGES
Ever since I was about nine or ten, I’ve been hearing people say that Christmas has lost its meaning, that it’s overly commercialized, blah blah blah.
I don’t care. I still like it.
Sure, it doesn’t have quite the same magic as when you actually believed in Santa Claus and woke up early in the morning to unwrap your presents and see what he’d left you or put in your sock (usually some mandarin oranges in our household); but I still like all the bright lights and the air of geniality, when everyone’s got some time off and is in a better mood than usual, and I especially enjoy all the gatherings of family and friends too.
I also respect the way that Christians venerate the birth – or the ideal – of a man who devoted much of his life to preaching a gospel of love and peace while helping the poor and the powerless. Whether you take his life and teachings as metaphors and parables or actual events does not make their message any less valid.
The Marxist saying about religion being the opium of the masses is absurd – TV and shopping now fulfill that role through binge watching and conspicuous consumption – for religion and mythology are the poetry of the masses: a series of signs and symbols, of images as radiant as stained glass windows or as horrific as the Whore of Babylon astride her seven-headed, scarlet-colored beast in the Book of Revelation.
Early in Sherwood Anderson’s still famous and widely read Winesburg, Ohio, possibly the most influential collection of short fiction published in the 20th century, the philosopher announces that he has discovered the great secret of life: “Everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.”
Yes, we all have our crosses and vices and inadequacies to bear, don’t we?
If that’s all too intellectual and literary for you, then just get completely hammered on Christmas and wake up on Boxing Day to stumble and suffer through a remarkable resurrection with the sharp nails of a hangover piercing your brain.
But let’s not fight about it, okay? Here’s my Christmas theme tune: The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)”