Come December, many of us around the world celebrate Christmas, or at the very least acknowledge this festive occasion one way or another. This includes my Chinese-Malaysian family for as long as I can remember.
No one in my immediate Asian family goes to church or follows the faith Christianity. We’ve never put up a Christmas tree at home. Never went caroling. But when I was a kid growing up in Australia, my parents wrapped presents for me and my brother in the lead up to Christmas day. They did pretty much the same when we later lived in Malaysia and Singapore – among other things too around this time of the year.
Not all of us commemorate the history behind Christmas or the birth of Jesus Christ but still get into the spirit of this season. Different cultures around the world have different ways of celebrating or spending it, or even similar ways of celebrating.
In quite a few Asian cities, when December rolls around it’s time to have fun and essentially be a part of the commercial side surrounding Christmas. In Japan, Vietnam and Thailand where Buddhism is widely followed, Christmas day is not an official holiday but this is not an excuse to not let loose or deck out places with festive décor. A study by the China Social Survey Institute noted some Chinese see Christmas as an ‘excuse to party’ and felt many Chinese festivals are comparatively ‘solemn, serious and spiritual’. And so Christmas is a chance for some stereotypically workaholic Asians to take a breather from routines all too familiar.
Although Christmas Day is a public holiday in Malaysia, it’s full-swing business as usual for most shops in this country. No secret many Malaysians like shopping, any day. On Christmas days back then, dad woke me and my brother up before 9am and then drove us to one of the big shopping malls downtown – all in a bid to get a parking space. After we parked, for the next six hours both he and my mum dragged me and my brother from store to store to check out year-end sales, no matter how much me and my brother wailed together, “How boring!”. But the folks never failed to treat us to McDonalds midway, which really was just a smidge of consolation…
Christmas time in Asia is a time to indulge in good food, a time to have big banquets and honour the idea of family. Togetherness is a virtue in Chinese cultures: there’s the sense of filial piety coming home and being a family unit once again after a year where we’ve all been places. As a teenager, each Christmas in Malaysia was a Christmas where my family attended at least one big family dinner with the extended relatives. During the years my family lived in Singapore, dad drove us – five, six hour drives – back to Kuala Lumpur, the heart of Malaysia where most of our family are, for these dinners.
For many of these dinners, my big Chinese family was privileged to have our own private dining rooms, rooms booked months in advance. Even then we could still hear other restaurant patrons outside shouting yum seng over and over, toasting to the end of the year. A lot of the time this raucousness was a welcome distraction from the awkward silences between me and my far-flung relatives who had nothing much to say to me but, “What level are you in school?” and “Who is your boyfriend?”
During Christmas time, festive lights streak along the streets in Asia, turning these streets into fairytale wonderlands, sometimes looking downright kawaii. As fellow blogger Constance from Foreign Sanctuary shared, there are rows and rows of colourful lights in Taiwan for the occasion. Lina from My Hong Kong Husband shows us how Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong lights up with LED lights around alongside Pokémon and My Melody Christmas decorations. In Singapore, the famous city shopping strip Orchard Road lights up for kilometres for the with a different theme each year. In the weeks before driving back to Malaysia for the family banquets, my parents took me and my brother to see these light shows along Orchard Road. There were always packed crowds, humidity hit me head on and my parents would erratically point in front trying to get me to get me to see the lights on show over heads much taller than me
Another memory of Christmas in Malaysia were the instances when my parents took teenage me to the shopping malls to see even more Christmas decorations. As CL over at Real Gunners said, Malaysian malls would be dolled up like winter wonderlands or European winter villages. At some point ‘Santa Claus’ would make appearances at the mall and my parents would bring me up to him to take photos. Interestingly enough, I noticed it was always a white man with blue/green eyes-fair-skin behind the Santa Claus outfit – the novelty of this never seems to wear off in Asia. Asian Santa Clauses’ were not something I remembered from my childhood, and it baffled me.
Some might argue that Christmas is a rather exclusive Western person’s festive occasion as it’s celebrated predominantly in the Western world. But the spirit of Christmas has always been about giving, being thankful for what and who we have – not where we’re from and what we do. A study in the U.S found around three quarters of Asian-Americans Buddhists and Hindus celebrate Christmas, joining in Christmas merrymaking. Anyone can be a part of Christmas if their heart desires, just as we can make anything happen if really we want something and be a part of something and go for it.
The commercialisation of Christmas can be hard to run away from. It may not make us a better person. It can bring out the worst in us. It can make us go around in circles when it comes to finding what we truly want. Along Orchard Road during Christmas time in Singapore, as people flitted around me with shopping bags in hand, strolling, gazing up at twinkling lights, my feet ached from meandering the crowds. I wondered how much of Christmas shopping and lights and boisterous celebrations we’d actually care about years from now.
Since my Chinese-Malaysian family moved to Melbourne, Christmas has been much more low-key. The day is a public holiday in Australia with practically all the shops shut, and I usually spend it at my parent’s place for a BBQ or we have meal in Chinatown. In my first year back in Melbourne, we also went to see the Christmas decorations in the city and the festive decor was pretty eye-catching. The next year not so eye-catching because it was the same decorations. And the year after. And even this year (I’ve stopped going to see these decorations). Predictable.
Truth be told, there’s no escaping predictably when it comes to Christmas, and any festive occasion that comes round. For some of us, that gives us something to look forward to, something that speaks to us: with Christmas, we come to yearn the thought behind putting together shiny wonderland lights, the meals together, the giving.
However, not everyone likes Christmas and holiday seasons for exactly these reasons. Not everyone likes every holiday occasion no matter how much the occasion encourages us to be thankful for what and whom we have. It could be because of the commerciality. The need to put on a show. The rush and desperation to give. The togetherness wears us down in one way or another. Or personally personal reasons and beliefs.
These days, I don’t look forward to Christmas. But I don’t not look forward to it either. I’m thankful for Christmas meals together. I don’t miss getting and unwrapping presents as much as it’s nice to receive gifts. I don’t miss walking down Orchard Road and seeing the Christmas lights as visually pleasing to the eye as they are. ‘Christmas’ can be whenever we want it to be. And it feels like another day to me today.
Come December in Australia it’s summer, and it’s winter in the middle of the year here. Each winter in Australia there is something called ‘Christmas in July‘ or also known as the Yuletide, where there are Christmas themed events around Australia during this chilly time of the year for us. It’s technically not another official Christmas…but really is another day, another rather random moment for some of us to count our blessings.
It’s always the thought that counts, real Christmas time or not, all day, every day. As Autumn Asborough from West Dates East recounted on treating others, ‘we have to look out for each other’. And then we’ll all be okay.
Keep it simple. Keep it together.
How does your country/culture celebrate Christmas? (This is my last post until some time next year. Until then, wishing you well 🙂 )