December 22, 2016 12:00 pm JST
Tea Leaves

Christmas and all that Muzak

Asia should promote its own festivals over eccentric renditions of Western ones

GWEN ROBINSON

I had already discovered the awful truth by the time I encountered my first Asian Santa Claus: The fabled old man and his team of reindeer didn't exist. I was woken abruptly one Christmas eve by rustling sounds, to see that the "Santa" who stuffed presents into the outsize pillow case hung at the end of my bed was, in fact, my father. I kept silent about my shattered innocence. But had I been blissfully ignorant by the time we came across "Father Christmas" in a shopping mall in Sydney's Chinatown, that would have been the moment of disillusionment.

Instead of the typical rotund, ruddy-cheeked Westerner, this Santa was a skinny and visibly nervous Asian man -- clad in the obligatory red and white fur-trimmed suit. His outfit was several sizes too big, his large "belly" -- a squashy pillow -- was slipping down, his fake white beard was peeling off and jet black hair sprouted from beneath his curly silver wig.

I'm sure he was a nice man, but his efforts to appear jovial did not convince the skeptical (mainly Asian) children queuing to sit on his angular knee, although they all dutifully smiled for the photo ops and anxious parents.

These days, "Santa corners" are a rare sight in Western shopping malls, amid rising political correctness that frowns on any child over 6 sitting on a stranger's knee, even if he is Father Christmas. In Asia, such commercialized Yuletide rituals -- the tinny renditions of traditional carols; the overly processed and overpriced festive food; the shiny plastic trees; and of course, Santa himself -- seem distant at best, and incongruous at worst, amid ancient cultures dominated by the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu religions. But that's only to a cynical Western observer.

In many Asian societies, it is increasingly common to celebrate Christmas with largesse and bonhomie. There seems little public compulsion to reflect on the reasons for the festival, nor appetite to know the story of Jesus Christ. But one could say the same about the contemporary Western approach.

Perhaps the most striking example of "mercantile Christmas" is the eager embrace by communist China and other societies that once condemned Christianity, including Vietnam and, in a much earlier era, even Japan. Today, all is forgiven and -- when it comes to the true meaning, forgotten. As apocryphal as it sounds, a story that emerged in Western media from Tokyo many decades ago, claiming that Santa figurines nailed to crucifixes had become popular Christmas items, sums up the disconnect.

In central Beijing, the heartland of China's ruling Communist Party, Christmas lights and decorations festoon the streets while inane Muzak renditions of "Jingle Bells" and time-worn carols blast out in shopping centers and hotel lobbies. This scene is being repeated in countless malls, luxury hotels and airports across Asia, from Singapore to Bangkok and even Myanmar, amid intensifying conflict there between Buddhists, Muslims and ethnic groups.

Spurred by the rapid rise of the middle classes, Asian retailers have embraced further commercialization of Christmas with heightened zeal. Is it just my imagination, or is the intrusive timbre of those souped-up carols, the garish decorations and the bluster of Yuletide marketing even more annoying than it once was?

The same commercial fervor accompanies other imported festivals throughout Asia, including Valentine's Day, Halloween and St. Patrick's Day -- particularly in Japan, where a "St. Paddy's Day" parade is held in central Tokyo. Valentines Day is a bonanza for Asian luxury goods retailers flogging costly gifts; and Halloween, meanwhile, unleashes an annual Oct. 31 wave of "trick or treating" children around the region.

Yes, (some) people have fun. But there is a depressing element to all this.

Asia has an abundance of intriguing festivals -- from India's riotously colorful Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, to Japan's Bon, which honors ancestral spirits with dances and music, and the exuberant water-throwing that marks Thailand's Songkran and Myanmar's Thingyan new year events.

Why, then, go for poorly understood and costly representations of Western festivals? The answers range from commercial imperatives to aspirational desires, to be more like the West. There is also genuine appeal for Asian societies in extracting the fun from such events while leaving aside the obligations, such as church-going and card-sending.

"In this way, Christmas, as it's celebrated in Southeast Asia, is more true to the original spirit of the season," one travel agency marketing Christmas holidays in Asia observed on its website. Commercialism aside, it noted, "there is an undeniable sincerity in how Christmas is approached that, with the proper context, demands appreciation."

Perhaps, but for those bemused by communist Santas and torture-by-Muzak carols, perhaps the last words should go to Ebenezer Scrooge: "Bah! Humbug!"

Gwen Robinson is chief editor of the Nikkei Asian Review.

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