‘Tis the season! For the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, we’re going global with the festivities! I’ve asked a handful of expat bloggers to write about what Christmas is like for them in their host countries – experiences, observations, quirks, and all. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I think you’ll enjoy reading these stories from around the globe.
Please give a warm welcome to Journeys of the Fabulist as she kicks things off!
I didn’t realise until we moved to Singapore, but Christmas is traditionally a religious holiday celebrated by Christians. It’s ironic, because Singapore itself struck me as a giant shopping mall centred around excess consumption.
It took a little while to appreciate the kaleidoscope of festivals which brings us, in turns, from New Year’s Day to Spring Festival to Easter, Labour Day, Vesak Day, Hari Raya Puasa, National Day, Mid-Autumn Festival, Hari Raya Haji, Halloween, Deepavali, and the Great Singapore Sale – which the tourists seem to celebrate with more zeal than any of the rest.
When we first arrived in 2006, I had to work my fledgling social networks to track down a Christmas tree, and the main reminders of the season came as invitations to midnight mass and a significant exodus, confined to particular subsections of the population, and facilitated by the lack of competition for Christmas leave.
The exodus is still one of the main Christmas traditions of Singapore. We’re taking part in it this year. But the more widely-celebrated secular version of Christmas – the one based on consumption with a vague sentiment of goodwill – seems to be gaining traction.
Streets and malls are decorated with the Christmas Bunny:
It would be a cute, narrow failure to ape a foreign custom, except that, in reality, they are hitting it square on the head. Case in point: I’m from Australia, where we’ve started celebrating Christmas In July. It’s something to do with snow or fir trees or chardonnay or we can’t remember let’s eat and buy presents! As usual with Singapore, it’s unsettling because they get it so right, as if Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sees you more clearly than you see yourself.
I’d say it’s my imagination, this shift – my increased familiarity with the city and my slow drift towards my niche therein – but others have felt the change, too. This year, A has jumped in at what appears (judging from the lengthy, sincere and apologetic reply) to be the forefront of a Christmas tradition those from home are already bored with – writing to people to complain about how much earlier it gets each year. The “kids these days” will probably start receiving presents from Santa and everything. Not even my young Christian colleague got them “in her day” – although several animated debates indicate he may start deliveringred packets instead of stocking-fillers.
The problem, though, is not that Christmas is “becoming commercialised” or “losing its meaning”. (My friend the anthropology graduate would argue that, anyway, Christmas is simply one of many calendrical rites which help transition society from one season to the next, using, in this case, pagan rituals mixed with other pagan rituals all covered with a thin veneer of Christianity – exactly the sort of fascinating statement which makes anthropology graduates risky dinner party guests.)
The problem is that Christmas in Singapore has, like a lot of Singaporean culture, gone through some sort of looking glass. A casual glance will reveal nothing but your own reflection, shining back politely and tastefully. But if you poke around a little, you’ll find you can step through like Alice into Wonderland, revealing a uniquely Singaporean fusion of cultures and traditions.
To those who observe it, Christmas in Singapore is often more a celebration of community: the Christian community. Not your family, or your friends and colleagues, or winter at the North Pole, but your church. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever seen the look bafflement on someone’s face when you tell them you can’t spend the whole of Christmas Day at their church function because you need to eat lunch with your mum. Even the most devout Australian Christian would leave the main feast for their immediate family circle.
And the rest of Singapore? They won’t just be keeping the lights on and the emergency rooms open, they’ll be getting on with business as usual (save for a single public holiday). As an Australian who remembers our month-long Christmas shutdowns, thank the multicultured heavens for that.
So if you want to celebrate Christmas this year Singapore expat style, with an exodus or an enormous hot lunch and some other expats, you won’t hear any chiding from me. This year and last we’ve done one or the other.
But if you want to find out how the locals do it, see what your nearest church has on offer – or head to the beach for a day off and a barbie and then get back to work.
- The kids can visit Santa in his workshop (and get their pictures taken) at Tanglin Mall until Christmas Eve.
- St John’s and St Margaret’s Church will host its usual Christmas Eve Gospel Service from 10pm until midnight. You can check their online calendar for other services over the Christmas period.
- The area adjacent to the PPH Community Services Centre at Teban Gardens (run by the PPH Brethren Church) will turn into a tent city on Christmas Day at around 10am. There’ll be worship, community outreach and family-style fun (face painting, bouncy castles, etc).
- There are loads of other churches in all corners of Singapore. Check their noticeboards or websites carefully for information. Most offer at least two sets of services in different languages, so make sure you’re heading to one you can understand.
- Traditional Christmas feasts are offered at many of your favourite brunch spots – though you may have to actually book this time. I’ve been told they’re a bit crowded and prolonged for young children, so consider wisely and come prepared. (I have no experience or recommendations but there’s an Expat Living Singapore article on Christmas brunches or try The Finder.)
- If you fancy heading out to the park for a barbecue, don’t forget to book your pit well in advance. There’ll be competition!
Shout out to Singaporeans! Add your Christmas Day plans in the comments, whether you observe Christmas or not, and especially if you’re doing something completely different to anything I’ve written about here.
Thanks to friends, colleagues and Singaporean taxi drivers for their input.
You can find Journeys of the Fabulist on Twitter
@JOTFabulist where she writes about kids, travel, geography, history, culture, social responsibility, logistics, marine biology, civil engineering, and sometimes, coffee or wine.