It is the start of November, so in Asia that means it is time to start celebrating Christmas. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
My three young children, who live in Melbourne, Australia, have been staying with me in Singapore for this past week. A few days ago, a Christmas tree suddenly appeared in the lobby of my apartment building. It came complete with hanging glitter-balls and angels, a blinking star on the top, and fake gift-wrapped presents beneath.
The first thing my five-year old son said when he saw it was: “Why do they have a Christmas tree in your building?” His nine-year old sister, putting her younger brother’s question in context for me, added in: “It’s not even December, and in Singapore the people are mostly Chinese, so they don’t even celebrate Christmas”.
Astute observation from the kids, and once I was alerted by the children to Christmas’ early arrival, it seemed like the whole of Singapore was already a hive of frenetic Christmassy activity, even though it was just the first week of November. I have lived in Singapore almost ten years, and I have never really noticed this anomaly before. I suppose it sometimes takes the innocence of children to point out the bleeding obvious.
Bleeding obvious is, in fact, something of an understatement. Massive, heavily decorated Christmas trees have now popped up in front of every shopping mall, in some cases literally overnight. The annual rush is well and truly on to see which mall can claim the title of “most festive in Singapore”. Inside those malls, there is fake snow and plastic snowmen, holiday decorations hang everywhere, and Santa grottos are opening for business. To complement this, all along Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping thoroughfare, they are already stringing up mile after mile of some of the most spectacular Christmas light displays you are ever likely to see.
Even in my local Starbucks, the coffees on offer have suddenly switched to “Christmas flavours”, the colour scheme has gone red and green, and the pastry cabinet now overflows with chocolate Yule logs, gingerbread men and “traditional” stollen.
What on earth is going on here? The Christmas tree in Rockefeller Centre, New York, which is possibly the most famous Christmas tree in the world, only lights up in early December. Ditto the Christmas tree at the White House. Ditto the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, London. Ditto the Christmas markets that spring up across much of Europe in December. Even at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican – arguably the very epicentre of everything Christmas – the tree is only illuminated on December 16th. Yet in Singapore, the Christmas season is well underway from the start of November, weeks before the festive mood takes hold in North America or Europe.
This is all the more bizarre given that Singapore is about as far removed from a Christmas setting as it gets. Firstly, the country is steamy and tropical. At this time of year, the temperature averages a sweltering thirty degrees centigrade and the afternoons are punctuated with ferocious monsoonal downpours. The last time real snow was seen in Singapore was towards the end of the ice age, for Pete’s sake.
Secondly, as even my nine-year old daughter was able to figure out, Christmas-cheer is a bit weird when it is in a place where only around 15% of the population are Christian, and where the vast majority of the inhabitants are either ethnically Chinese or Indian or Malay, with no inherent connection to Christmas at all.
But despite all this, the simple fact is that Christmas is a big deal in Singapore – a very big deal. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Christmas in Singapore is a very big business. It seems that the merchant sensibility that makes up much of modern Singapore’s identity has got the message loud and clear: if Christmas has become a celebration of rampant consumerism, that means money in the till, so hey, we want some of that. Who cares if it has nothing really to do with Singapore in the first place?
Thus you will find that shopping malls across Singapore aggressively promote the Christmas holiday, running year-end sales and offering a bewildering array of promotions and discounts to tie in with the festivities. Office workers expect their bosses to take them out for elaborate Christmas lunches; many families gather for Christmas dinners where adults and children alike swap Christmas cards and expect gift exchanges.
In short, Christmas in Singapore is just another facet of the same shopping-mall culture that defines much of the modern globalised village. And like a band of well-trained lemmings, we suck it all in without question; we revel in the relentless promotion of the season; and we respond accordingly with a delirious frenzy of consumption. We buy, buy, and buy, and then we buy some more.
Now, here’s the really interesting thing: it is not just Singapore that seems to have been afflicted with early, over-the-top Christmas celebrations. I have been living and travelling extensively in Asia for almost a decade, and I have seen first-hand how the consumer madness of Christmas has spread in the region, like an uncontrollable virus.
Let’s start in with the Philippines, where Christmas is the undisputed king of annual holidays. I guess this is understandable, given that the Philippines is one of only two predominantly Christian countries in Asia (the other is South Korea). So at least the Philippines has some legitimacy in its claim to the Christmas holiday.
Perhaps it is for this very reason that, in the Philippines, they have gone one step further than anyone else, and start their Christmas celebrations earlier than anywhere else in the world. Across the Philippine islands, they start selling traditional Christmas lanterns (“parols”) and carollers start appearing on street corners as early as September! From there on it is one big party, and the Christmas festivities only start to wind down in late January. This surely must mean the Philippines can claim the title of “World’s Longest Christmas Season”. Or, to put it another way, if you live in Manila, say, almost half of your year is Christmas.
Other examples across Asia?
Well, in South Korea there is Harabuji – a Father Christmas-like figure who wears a red or blue Santa suit, sometimes topped with a traditional Korean “gat” (tall top-hat). Just like Santa, Harabuji visits children to leave them gifts in the night, after the family has enjoyed a “traditional” Christmas dinner of sweet potato noodles, rice soup, BBQ beef (bulgogi) and the ever-present Korean staple of pickled chilli cabbage (kimchi).
In Hong Kong, as early as November you can experience the joy of a Chinese-flavoured Winterfest, where the highlight is a forest of over 200 Christmas trees at the Ocean Park amusement park.
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, but there too Christmas has become a popular festival. For the first few years I lived in Singapore I remember visiting Jakarta each year in early December, to participate in a round of Christmas lunches and office parties. December 25th is an official national holiday in Indonesia (it is in Malaysia as well, for that matter), which I find slightly odd as it is not an official holiday in any Muslim countries in the middle-east, for example.
Even in stoutly secular China, where most of the world’s crappy Christmas trees, decorations and gifts are made, the madness of modern-day Christmas is starting to take hold in the public consciousness. Perhaps this isn’t that surprising – the consumer message of modern Christmas is perfectly suited to a place where wealth and middle-class consumption is growing explosively. But it still feels a touch weird to me to visit a department store in Shanghai or Beijing and to see Christmas trees, lights and decorations, or to find fairytale grottos where Shen Dan Lao Ren, the Chinese version of Santa, bounces “little emperors” on his knee.
Of all the places I have been in Asia, however, Christmas in Japan deserves a special mention. A few years ago, I visited Tokyo in early December with Linda, and we were astonished by what we saw. There is nowhere in Asia – perhaps nowhere in the world – that has adopted the modern-day version of Christmas with quite the same fervour and passion as the Japanese have.
Of course, as you would expect from the land of endless neon, the lighting displays that illuminate the streets of Japanese cities at Christmas time are beyond mind-blowing. For a few months each year, the whole country puts on the most wondrous light show imaginable. The lights go up during November (an early start, like in Singapore) and often remain up until Valentine’s Day in February (another Western, utterly un-Asian holiday that has been appropriated by Asian consumer culture). In December, wandering around central Tokyo after the sun goes down can be a magical experience, where you feel like a rocket ship has carried you away to another world, a wondrous fairytale of shimmering, blinking lights.
During the Christmas season, huge crowds flock Tokyo’s shopping mall districts, buying gifts and soaking up the faux-festive atmosphere. It is not at all unusual to see adults in the streets wearing Christmas hats, or even full Santa Claus outfits (see my previous post Disney Rock for an observation on this Asian love of dressing up like children). In the basement of a Ginza shopping mall, Linda and I sampled light-as-air freshly-baked baumkuchen – I doubt we could have found any better in Germany, where this traditional Christmas cake originates. The decorations, the people, the food, the cold weather and the snow – if you happen to find yourself in Tokyo in December, you will at times struggle to remember that you are, in fact, in Japan.
But it is much more than just lighting and shopping. Rather, it seems that the notion of Christmas has somehow burrowed its way into Japan’s national consciousness, and evolved a life of its own from there.
In response to a recent survey by Japan-guide.com, more than half of all Japanese say Christmas is a special holiday to them. Hard to believe, given that Christianity was banned in Japan until less than one hundred years ago, and Christmas only began to gather mass appeal in the 1960s. And truly staggering to believe, given that almost 99% of Japanese are Confucian or Buddhist by background, plus it was not all that long ago that Japan was nuked by the world’s largest Christian nation.
In any case, Christmas is now so extensively assimilated in Japan that it has given rise to a whole assortment of oddly wonderful, and uniquely Japanese, Christmas factoids:
– Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has been more or less adopted in Japan as the official anthem of Christmas. There is even now a special name for the piece in Japanese – the Daiku, or “Great Nine”.
– The Christmas tree at Syowa Kinen Park in Tokyo is perhaps the world’s most unique and spectacular “tree”. It is made from about 7,000 stacked champagne glasses, beautifully illuminated in different colours. “Lighting” this “tree” involves pouring champagne (actually coloured water) in vast quantities into the very top glass, and watching them overflow in a carefully synchronised show.
– In 2011, the Tanaka jewellery store in Ginza displayed their Golden Christmas Tree for the first time. It was 2.4 metres high, weighed 12 kg, and was made of pure gold. Apparently valued at almost $2 million, this made it officially the world’s most expensive Christmas tree. A bit of a challenge when the source code for Christmas generally suggests that you should “not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint” (Proverbs 23:4-5) but then again, what do I know?
– The Japanese version of Santa Claus is actually a recycled Buddhist monk named Hoteiosho. Like Santa, he is reported to visit each home in Japan, leaving presents for the kids. They say that he has eyes in the back of his head – kind of creepy when you think about it, but at least it helps with warning children that they’d better be good, because Hoteiosho can quite literally see everything they do!
– The Japanese version of Christmas cake, eaten everywhere in Japan on Christmas Eve, is not a heavy European-style fruit pudding. Instead, it is a light, strawberry flavoured cream-and-sponge cake. Because of this, the cakes have a limited shelf-life, and on Christmas Day prices are slashed, to try and clear leftover stock before it spoils. This has led to young girls in Japan now sometimes being called “Christmas cakes”: good for marriage until their 25th birthday, but requiring massive discounting to marry off after they turn twenty-five.
However, of all the Christmas oddities in Asia my hands-down personal favourite has to be the Christmas-fuelled love affair that the Japanese have developed with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). For me, nothing illustrates in quite the same way the mad, consumer-driven obsession that Christmas has become across much of Asia.
In the 1970s, KFC ran an extensive marketing campaign in Japan to convince the Japanese that at Christmas time the traditional, American-style thing to do is to eat chicken. I mean turkey, ham, chicken – it’s all the same really, isn’t it? And hey, what a surprise, quite conveniently it just so happens to be the case that KFC sells nothing but traditional, American-style fried chicken.
Roll forward thirty years, and the Christmas Dinner a-la KFC is now almost a Japanese national institution. People in Japan place their Christmas KFC orders weeks in advance. Lengthy queues form outside KFCs when people arrive to collect those orders on December 24th. And, perhaps unique in the world of fast-food restaurants, in December in Tokyo you often need a reservation for dine-in tables at KFC. Seriously, in Japan at Christmas time you actually have to book in advance – well in advance – if you want to enjoy a holiday bucket of the Colonel’s finger-lickin-good fried chicken. Remember that, next time you pass by your local KFC grease-temple.
Back in Singapore, we were driving down Orchard Road, and we were looking at the Christmas lights as they continue to go up. My seven year-old daughter, who unlike her siblings had thus far expressed no opinion on the subject, suddenly broke her silence.
“Aba [Dad, in Hebrew]” she said, “I find it really weird that they have so many Christmas decorations in Singapore”. She paused and thought for a moment, and then finished her sentence: “It is actually quite confusing”.