Christmas Culture Clash

Posted on December 17, 2010


Christmas in Ho Chi Minh City

Darling Man is Buddhist and a minimalist. Trying to make him understand the mish-mash of Christmas traditions is difficult.

Christmas in Ho Chi Minh City

So when I announced I was buying the baby three Christmas presents, a discussion began that appeared to be a highway to an argument.

“Buy them in Vietnam,” he said, dismissively. “It’s cheaper.”
“But we’re going to Vietnam after Christmas,” I said.
“She’s a baby. She doesn’t know.”
“But I want her to enjoy Christmas. It’s a family time.”
“She doesn’t know. And her family is in Vietnam and Australia.”

I stood down. Darling Man continued gardening. I spent a whole week thinking about the meaning of Christmas and how our cross-cultural non-practising relocated family will deal with it.

To Darling Man, Christmas is Noel, a remnant of French colonial rule. Noel is a month of flashing neon street lights in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — gets on their motorbike to go and look at the lights. The traffic is incredible.

Saigon Christmas lights

All the major hotels, restaurants and shopping centres are tizzied up to their eyeballs in lights, styrofoam reindeer, gigantic mice in Santa outfits and kilometres and kilometres of aluminium wrap. Just about every business creates a “cave”, which I think is some weird interpretation of the traditional nativity scene. Here’s one from 2008.

Vietnam Christmas decoration

To Darling Man, the special once-a-year family time is Tet, the lunar New Year. Christmas is just an excuse to drive around town with your mates getting your photo taken in front of giant plastic figurines. The Noel lights are quickly taken down to be replaced by New Year lights, then the Tet displays, creating many more photo opportunities.

Colonel Sanders at Christmas

So why the Western obsession with “stuff” at Christmas? I spent three years without stuff, living the minimalist lifestyle that is suddenly all the rage. We moved to Singapore and in the space of four weeks had to buy enough stuff to furnish a house. (The fact that we still don’t have wardrobes after seven months is a whole other story.)

Buying our Singapore stuff actually hurt a little bit. We got some great bargains. Not from departing expats as I’d expected but from cashed-up Singaporeans who wanted a new “look” for their pad. We spent a few thousand and got some great-looking furniture. But I have no emotional attachment to it. Selling it isn’t going to bother me at all.

So why do I want to accumulate three more things? The baby could probably do without them. She has a lot of toys, some bought, some were gifts but the vast majority are hand-me-downs from a colleague with a four-year-old daughter.

Why do I want her to know Christmas as a time to receive gifts? I’m not sure. But I remember the great anticipation of Christmas I had as a child. Most of our presents were practical – a few toys, some new clothes, underwear and pyjamas. But how we prized those presents, sitting under the tree after being wrapped, packed and posted by loving aunts and grandparents. Feeling the presents, smelling them, shaking them, using a fingernail to tear a tiny hole in the wrapping paper to try to see inside.

And when we were finally allowed to open them (neatly, so the wrapping paper could be reused) there was the exciting long-distance phone calls and letters and tapes to say thank you. And show-and-tell. And the pride in having a new thing.

I remember the feeling of having a new thing but I don’t remember what most of those things were. (Except the skipping rope I got for my fifth birthday. My sister spent weeks telling me I wasn’t getting a skipping rope so that year I knew exactly what I was getting. And my parents knew my sister was too young to keep a secret properly.)

I remember the years we were visiting relatives at Christmas. There was the Christmas lunch and/or dinner. Everyone talking, my grandfather’s belly-jiggling laugh, aunts and uncles playing with us, silly jokes from the Christmas crackers. Sometimes a makeshift slip-and-slide in the backyard, with my grandfather holding the hose as slippery wiggly giggly wet kids shrieked and slithered along a strip of plastic. Later, it was playing backyard cricket with tipsy uncles, rum balls and trifle, potato salad and prawns.

None of these wonderful childhood memories are linked to religion. But riffling through these memories has reminded me of the wonderful joy and love of our family gatherings so powerfully it’s brought tears to my eyes.

Can I give that to my daughter through a store-wrapped xylophone, a magic sketcher and a toddler push-bike? Sadly, no. But what I can give her is that sense of loving family fun.

And so this year we are hosting a Christmas barbecue at our house. It will be small, just a few of my co-workers. We’ve sourced a basic cricket set. I reckon my gentle giant Indian colleague will be able to provide the belly-jiggling laugh. (Oh, how I miss my granddad!) We’ll have prawns. The Pom wants turkey, which may or may not be possible. The food will be served in plastic containers. We’re going to try to borrow some outdoor chairs and tables from the food stalls down the road. If any more than four people want wine, they’ll be drinking it out of paper cups. It will be hot, it will be relaxed, there’ll probably be too much food. But most of all, it will be fun. That’s the kind of Christmas I want my baby to have. And that’s how I’d like Darling Man to know Christmas.

He understands the family time and was all to happy to agree to co-host a party. The presents, well, I just told him I didn’t want to waste our short time in Vietnam stuck in traffic trying to find toys.

So now I’ve sorted that out…. early tomorrow I’m going to do a run to the shops. I’m buying the push-bike, the xylophone and the magic sketcher and getting the lovely lady outside the store to wrap it. It won’t go under a tree. Neither a tree nor presents would withstand two seconds of Miss M’s inquisitiveness. They’ll probably have to go up on top of the bookcase, along with all the other stuff we’ve piled up there to keep it out of her reach.

Then, before the Singapore shopping stampede begins in earnest, I’m going to go to the supermarket and try to work out how to order some ham and turkey for our wonderful Singaporean Christmas, which we’re going to share with our new Indian, English, Australian and Singaporean friends.I’ll order a case of beer and lots of bottles of wine. I’ll order prawns. And I’ll get it all delivered, which I think costs $8 which is going to make Darling Man wince but, hey, it’s cheaper than owning a car.

And I’m sure Darling Man will find some way to add a Vietnamese touch. I wonder what turkey marinated in fish sauce and garlic tastes like.

Merry Christmas to you, where ever you are. I hope you find some Christmas joy in your own special way.

Posted in: Baby, Friends, Love