I don’t really like Christmas. Several years ago, channelling my inner fourteen-year old, I stormed out of a family dinner and swore I would never return home for Christmas again. And because my inner fourteen-year old is about as stubborn as my outer thirty-something, I’ve stuck to my guns. This year, I’ll be swinging in a hammock on a Cambodian tropical island paradise. So there.
You’d think Vietnam is a great place for Scrooges, but actually the Vietnamese love Christmas. I mean, they really love Christmas. Every year, come December 1, the whole of Hanoi is instantly festooned with fairy lights, fake snow, and electric Santas playing saxophones. Every supermarket and café switches their playlist over to Kindergarten Children Singing Jingle Bells On Repeat.
Hàng Mã, the street in the Old Quarter which sells an ever-changing array of seasonal decorations, is enveloped in the fumes of motorbike exhaust and poor-quality tinsel as drive-by shoppers go mental for trees, wreaths and Santa suits.
In fact, I would hedge that Santa suits are more popular in Vietnam than in Australia. Here, anyone of any age, sex or stature can whack on some saggy red polyester to get into the festive vibe. There is no appreciation of the necessary Santa decorum, nor of the great responsibilities that fall to the wearer of his suit. A Vietnamese Santa may in fact be a skinny teenage parking attendant who is smoking ten-cent Vinataba cigarettes and squeezing his pimples with the aid of a motorbike’s side mirror. While wearing a saggy Santa suit.
This isn’t the only thing a little skew-whiff about Vietnam’s take on Christmas. There might be plenty of fake presents under the fake trees covered in fake snow, but there’s not really any actual gift-giving, nor any kind of festive feasts. The only turkeys and hams and Christmas puddings on offer are the ones imported for sale to expats desperately trying to stave off homesickness.
In fact, except for the country’s Catholic mass-going minority, December 25 in Vietnam comes and goes like any other day of the year. Not only is it not a holiday, it’s not even acknowledged as the Christmas Day. At work in the lead up to Christmas a couple of years ago, surrounded by polystyrene snowmen obstructing the photocopier and colleagues all wearing Santa hats, I had to explain at great length why I wanted to take December 25 off work. The notion that Christmas was an actual event, taking place at a specific time, and not just a month of tinsel and Jingle Bells was completely novel.
If you’ve ever wondered what Christmas looks like when it’s been stripped of all tradition, all cultural and religious meaning, and all personal significance, this is it: Christmas in Vietnam. Next time you’re claiming that Christmas is becoming too commercial or losing its real meaning, you can point to Vietnam as a cautionary example. “Santas don’t even say ‘Ho ho ho’ there!” you can say.
And does this please me, the Scrooge who won’t go home for Christmas? Does it prove to me how hollow and superficial Christmas really is? Annoyingly, no, quite the opposite. It’s made it perfectly clear that what creates that Christmas-y feeling — the exact feeling that Vietnam lacks despite its wealth of saxophonist Santas — actually is that Hallmark stuff about communal celebration and traditions, and loved ones gathering together, family arguments and all.
Still not going home for it, though.
Tabitha Carvan writes the blog The City That Never Sleeps In about the lighter side of living in Hanoi. She contributes to a number of publications and is a regular columnist for AsiaLife magazine and Vietnam’s largest news site Dân Trí. You can follow her on Twitter here