A few days ago, Australian comedian and columnist Catherine Deveny published this article online. I think it's hilarious - a nice piece of satire on the media among others. But it also highlights one of the most disturbing elements associated with modern-day celebrations: consumerism. In Deveney's fictional article, "soft drink giant Coca-Cola is negotiating branding the proposed ''Christmas'' with a character called Santa, an elderly obese bearded man who lives in the North Pole and has elves who make gifts for good children who follow the teachings of Christ." [NB I say fictional because of course Santa is the descendant of the early Germanic character St. Nicholas, who still descends chimneys in Germany to place gifts in children's shoes.]
It seems that everywhere we go, Christmas is surrounded by a consumerist haze. Advertising for Christmas goods saturates all the media. We are encouraged to buy big, expensive gifts. Can't afford one? Buy it on credit! Because everywhere the message is the same: Christmas is about giving material gifts. You can measure your love in dollars and cents, the bigger the better, and of course, nobody you love will really be happy unless you find them the perfect (biggest, most expensive) gift. [Aside - uh oh... if you buy your gift on credit with no down payment, then maybe you don't really love me because you didn't actually spend anything!]
We are all victims of this mentality in some way or another. Have you ever found a lovely gift and rejected it on account that it cost too little? Ever found yourself buying something probably useless because you feel obliged to give a material gift on account of the season? Ever felt ripped off when your spouse/sister/parent/child didn't spend as much on you as you spent on them?
Consumerism, that Western child, is also alive and well in Asia - and so is Santa Claus. His white face and white beard is plastered everywhere across the capital city, where the shops are filled with cheap Chinese goods. Under his watchful eye, dusty stuffed toys, cheap plastic dolls, cars and airplanes, plastic footwear and t-shirts with misprinted English slogans are sold from every little stall and street vendor. The quality of these items is so poor that some of them have actually fallen apart while still IN the boxes, and yet they are sold at prices that for the local economy, are exorbitant. On the days leading up to Christmas, the shops of the capital were packed, mostly with women, spending precious dollars on this badly-made junk. In a country where most of the population lives hand-to-mouth, it is a bit shocking to behold this pocket of consumerism. Yet there is the hallmark of the emerging middle class - the luxury to shop is a sign of social standing reserved for the economic elite.
The truth is that for the majority poor in this Catholic country, Christmas is actually still a religious holiday. How astonishing that seems in our modern, material world. Yet across this tiny nation, the population (yes, all of it - or about 98% of it) flocks to 3 or 4-hour mass to celebrate the birth of their faith. Christmas is a time for prayer, not presents. If you're fortunate, you will celebrate by going to sleep with a full belly. If you're really lucky, you might get a new shirt for Church. Only the rich would expect a shiny new toy. And so that, therefore, is what everyone aspires to.
The seeming paradox of a fat, white Santa in Asia in fact makes all too much sense. He represents everything that people dream of: a full belly, a long life, luxurious clothes, and high social standing (white skin, long beard, gifts for everyone). And so in this town, in the poorest country in Asia, Deveney's article is in fact not too far from the truth: in the creche scenes that are erected all over the city, watching over Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, standing taller and prouder than the 3 wise men, is Father Christmas - Santa Claus.