I despise Christmas songs, with a vengeance.
I used to hate Christmas too. But that’s one of the irritating things about growing up, alongside the myriad other unnerving things about growing up. You come back to an old itch or annoyance and you realise you can’t hate anything so much anymore. Because as you grow up, you learn to see more facets of a single story and issue.
And so growing up also means that i have to hate Christmas less, because I have learnt to see things from more angles. And perhaps from more angels too.
Growing Up with Christmas and Chinese
I came from a family which styles itself as “traditional Chinese”. And because it styled itself as “traditional” with an ostensibly complete set of “Asian values”, we resolutely never celebrated Christmas, or any of the angmoh holidays which Singaporean society and media seemed and seems intent on stuffing down our throats.
Pa would say: “Why do we need to celebrate Christmas? We’re not even Christians!” And despite the Christmas songs that saturated the airwaves, despite the fake snow that swirled all around on this sweaty, tropical island, intent on making us buy buy buy and be MERRY HO HO HO, I have come to see the sense in that perspective.
And so, because I grew up in a non-Christian but Singaporean household that was resolute about being secular and rational (for a given value of “rational”), I never celebrated Christmas in the way many other Singaporeans did. Or the way we think many Singaporeans ought to.
You know, the whole works? One plastic tree, made in China, with a hundred green
And voila: Christmas.
Why are you so angry? Just let people have their fun la. My brother and mother asked me this in the car last Sunday, when I told them about despising Christmas songs. Last year, or a few years ago, I would have simply said that the whole exercise of Christmas was simply a capitalist conspiracy (oh, such a precociously big word for a young boy) to make people spend spend spend. It used to strike me that there was something fundamentally empty with the way Singaporeans (seem to) celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is a Christian festival. Michael-mas, Christ-mas. A celebration of Christ. What meaning does the birth of a Christian messiah have to non-Christians? I’m not even sure if everyone realises Christmas was to celebrate Christ, and not Santa Claus. It’s admittedly hard to bear this in mind if you walk down Orchard Road. There’s very little in fake gigantic plastic green trees and fat Caucasian men with overgrown white beards to suggest that Christmas was about a Jewish heretic born in Palestine.
So how come so much of Singaporean mainstream media seems so hell-bent on celebrating it? It’s all over Orchard Road. It’s all over the Straits Times. Goodness, it’s all over Pek Kio Hawker Centre. Caroling folks wearing “Hawaiian” prints with guitars “spreading the festive cheer”.The festive cheer? The spirit of giving? Then how come we have to wait til December to amp up our Spirits of Giving? Because of the year-end bonuses?
I’ve always been very skeptical about Christmas in Singapore as a result. For a very long time, I’ve seen it as a vast (and vastly wasteful) exercise (and excuse) in getting people to part with their money, under very tinny, thin and ultimately empty veneers of “giving” and “good cheer”.
Wet Blankets and Sleighbells
A wet blanket is simply someone who refuses to feel or act the way he is told to act through various societal mechanisms – whether it’s friends/family, media, or styrofoam snow that’s clogging up the roads and will probably end up in the ocean and swallowed by a hapless green turtle to die of years down the road…
I don’t like Christmas and I don’t like Christmas songs. I refuse to feel happy simply because the drumbeat and the sleighbells want me to. And although I am a clear-eyed receiver of national indoctrination that leads me to believe in the Singaporean nation-state, I nonetheless resent the kind of subtle control Christmas exerts, masquerading under pretences of happiness and “giving”. These words, these discourses, hide many deep-seated problems we think we can run away from simply by buying things or taking pictures.
For example. Like NUS Rag, a question I always wonder about is: what happens to the immense amount of Christmas decorations they put up all over the country, and the world? What is the environmental cost of that? They certainly aren’t re-used the next year, because we always seem to need something Bigger and Better. Austerity and thrift are sins after all, not virtues.
That’s why Santa Claus asks you what you want right? Even though you already have a complete family, an iPod, and iPad, a laptop, a good education, a healthy body, and crippling anxiety issues. Or debt, probably.
I have many issues with Christmas. It’s indeed incredibly uncomfortable to be walking through shopping centres right now. There’s something very unnerving about how posters and advertisements yell out at you, demanding that you buy this or that thing. Because, you know, CHRISTMAS. Because, you know, “tis the season to be jolly falalallaalalalala”. Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh -although a significant percentage of Singaporeans will never have the chance to see nor experience snow (notwithstanding freak weather caused by global warming, of course).
But why should anyone care about the colour of a reindeer’s nose when pangolins and colugos are dying out at such an alarming rate in this part of the world, butchered for their homes, spare parts and traditional medicines? Why do we deserve to be happy in our 20-degree airconditioning when the Great Barrier Reef is dying, when so many are suffering all over the world, fleeing from war, hunger, mutilation and pestilence?
The Dream of a White Christmas
But maybe that’s the point: because life is just too complicated. Maybe we need a white Christmas because life has hurled too many shades of gray into our unprepared faces. Maybe we so desperately want Christmas because we live in such depressing and disappointing times. Because we have never tasted nor felt snow before, and maybe never will. Because we never had someone so fat and cheery promising us things we always wanted. Because life is too stark and too sharp, and will not give us things for free. Maybe we write stories and bend realities – because the alternative would drive us crazy.
Maybe what the idea of Christmas offers is not a new Kindle, or more expensive toys – but the possibility of a rupture, a defiant rude crack in the banality and terror and routine of our everyday lives; albeit a momentary one fuelled by spending and bright lights.
Maybe Christmas is there because we all need to escape sometimes: away from the creeping terror of our responsibilities and mortalities, the coring loneliness and emptiness that we sometimes inevitably feel on gray, rainy days.
Maybe we need Christmas in the same way we need dreams and we need hope.
We reach out, in whatever way we can, across the darkness and cold spaces, to try and make ourselves and our fellow beings feel a little better. Maybe we are really just doing the best we can, because the weather outside is truly frightful (dark and full of terrors), and so we try our best to make this fire inside here as delightful as we can.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
So I googled “One Horse Open Sleigh”, because I didn’t for the life of me know what the hell it was, despite having sung the songs so many times.
P.S. Enjoy St. Nicholas while you can. In a few weeks, like the plumage and coats of winter hares, wallabies, foxes and birds, Sint Niklaus’s white beard will darken to a rich lush ebony. Cai Shen Ye is already on his way.
We all love our gods of abundance.