A Christmas card from Hanoi: Why I stopped caring about Jesus' birthday
“See you next Sunday for your second lesson,” Thang, my driving instructor said after my first time behind the wheel of his old black Mazda.
A few days later, my brother pointed out my second session with Thang would fall on Christmas Day.
I stopped caring about Christmas a long time ago.
Back in primary school in catholic Poland, I was always more excited by Jesus’ birthday than my own. I’m no Christian, though I did attend religious classes in first grade for fun and out of curiosity.
Christmas to me is perhaps like what Lunar New Year Tet is to those born and raised in Vietnam. Tet was just some day around February when dad gave me money. During Christmas, especially the days leading up to the holiday, everyone was busy being... kind. I remember my class making ornaments, decorating a tree, sharing a meal and giving each other blessings by breaking oplatek, a Christmas wafer.
Even writing to Santa Claus was fun. I knew the old man was a hoax since kindergarten, when the class noticed "Santa" wore the same earrings as one of our teachers. Somehow, this "lie" didn’t matter. There’s no other time it’s so easy to express one’s wishes and give without feeling awkward.
At home, Christmas was a rare opportunity for the family to laugh together while watching "Home Alone". The combination of darkness and snow outside just made everything at home so much warmer.
Leaving Poland in December was painful. Christmas in Vietnam for the first few years was painful, especially as end-of-term exams somehow always fell either on the 24th or 25th.
I don’t know exactly when the sense of longing and nostalgia just stopped, it’s been a couple of years. There’s hardly anything in Hanoi to remind me of the festivities.
Not to mention, I’m busy at work.
As soon as December kicked in, my office got decorated with the typical Christmas ornaments. So was the lobby of the building: a fake fireplace, a huge plastic tree and other red and green stuff. I couldn’t bother to look closely. A group even sang "Jingle Bells" as someone played the cliché melody on a piano in preparation for some office performance.
To me, "Jingle Bells" has never worked as a Christmas carol. It’s too upbeat for celebrating the birth of little Jesus in the middle of a freezing cold night. After all, I grew up singing Polish koledy, many of which sound like a mother’s lullaby. Even the happier ones weren’t about snowy adventures, but the joy of welcoming Jesus into the world.
Who am I to judge? My Christmas is different from Vietnamese Christmas.
Children dressed as Santa Claus stand in front of a replica of the Bethlehem nativity grotto at the St. Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam December 21, 2016. Photo by Reuters/Kham
Just ten percent of Vietnam actually consider themselves Christian, which celebrate relatively quietly. They go to church on Christmas Eve, confess their sins and sit down for a family meal. Some families that have adopted Western traditions give each other presents, write to Santa or make a little Nativity cave—another thing lost in translation.
The rest view the holiday as an excuse to have fun—to go out, take cute pictures and give presents to loved ones. If you have a significant other, even better. Looking up at the sky while embracing your crush on Christmas Eve in front of St. Joseph’s Cathedral is no doubt every Hanoi teenager’s secret dream.
But, lately, even the religious have engaged in bizarre demonstrations during the holiday.
A Catholic Parish in impoverished Nghe An Province recently scraped together enough cash to throw up a bamboo Eiffel Tower decked out in 1,000 meters of lights up near a district road. A Catholic correspondent in the provincial guessed they were just having fun, but insisted it had nothing at all to do with the holiday itself.
Perhaps coincidentally, Diamond Plaza, Saigon’s famous shopping mall, has turned one of its entrances into a glowing Eiffel Tower.
Non-believers seem to think Christmas and New Year’s Eve form one big holiday. Upbeat pop songs like Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You” just add up to the notion that Christmas is one huge party wrapped in silver plastic.
Big corporations see the holiday as an opportunity to set up huge s outside shopping malls. I was once involved in designing such a display. The big Vietnamese bank offered the following instruction: make it “sếch, sốc, sến”
Literally: “sexy, shocking, cheesy.”
I’m still not clear if they were joking, but I can assure you the final product didn’t meet the criteria.
The "Christmas Eiffel Towers" grace the front of a popular shopping mall in Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
More Vietnamese Christmas:
> #TGIF Holiday Edition: Go out and unsuck your life this weekend
> Vietnamese town lights up Xmas Eiffel tower
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