Goodwill to all men

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 December, 2004, 12:00am

Despite all the hype, the traditions of giving, caring and sharing with family and friends have survived

Christmas is for everyone. Even devout atheists can enjoy the annual binge of goodwill, office parties and universal good cheer. Except for practising Christians, the festivities in the 21st century have little religious content. Instead of prayer, the focus for the majority, even in traditionally Christian countries such as Italy or Germany, is on shopping, feasting and partying.

The message on the streets is more likely to be about sleigh bells in the snow - even in tropical Singapore - than the birth of Jesus in a humble stable in Bethlehem.

Everyone knows when Christmas is coming. One of the first signs is when you get off the MTR at Admiralty and walk through a mall. Hello, there's the world's most recognisable song, Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer; time to reach for the wallet and begin buying presents.

You cannot avoid Christmas celebrations, and most people don't want to. It is a time for traditionalists to rejoice in the birth of the child whom they believe brought salvation to the world. For others, it is an occasion to wrestle the cork out of a bottle of champagne.

It is a universal, one-size-fits-all celebration. Unless you are a hermit living in a cave somewhere on a lonely peak in the Taklamakan mountains, you cannot escape.

Most people don't want to. In almost every region on Earth, Christmas is a time for people not only to enjoy themselves, but often to pause and give thanks.

That applies to Hong Kong, where statistically about 80 per cent of people who are partying at Christmas have little or no connection with Christianity. Does that make the occasion any less enjoyable? It doesn't seem to.

Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and those with no religious beliefs seem as enthusiastic about following some Christmas traditions as the faithful. The Christmas tree is an example.

When our children were small, we bought a genuine tree and decorated it with plastic baubles. But like many people, I was concerned about the millions of infant pines being axed, so we went out and bought a plastic one. It was a noble imitation, and every year would be faithfully exhumed from its box and torturously assembled (I never did get the hang of it, although we used it for 20 seasons).

When our children grew up and left home, I gave the tree to a friend with young children. I checked with him this week; that same tree has been erected again. By now, it must have seen 25 years of service.

That small triumph for the environment has been echoed mightily by another changing Christmas custom. How many cards did you get this year? The advent of the internet must have saved dozens of forests.

A decade ago, it was socially essential for people to send Christmas cards to just about every person and company they knew. Weary postmen all over the world carried vast bags of cards which for a couple of weeks would be stuck up on walls and windows and then discarded.

But now a sense of the waste caused by the custom and the ease of sending electronic cards have largely put an end to this.

Other traditions remain as popular as they were a century ago. Even people who are not Christians decorate their homes.

Christmas, above all else, is a time to be with families and to think of absent friends. Because so many firms worldwide close for the festive season, it offers a chance for reunions. That applies particularly to Hong Kong; just try getting an air ticket in December!

It is a time for everyone to be a little more thoughtful, a bit more considerate, a mite nicer. Giving to others is an important part of the celebrations, and many people make donations to charity.

At the same time, Christmas is a commercial bonanza. It is no coincidence that most of the huge toy, watch and gift fairs are held in Hong Kong in the spring. That is when thousands of buyers for department stores and distributors worldwide descend on the city to view the latest novelties made in factories in China.

Business is always brisk in December. Even if the giver and receiver are not religious, gifts for almost everyone are still mandatory.

For a quarter of a century, I was dragged, often unwillingly, into buying red-tasselled hats, cholesterol-stuffed puddings and cards featuring angels and flying stags. It was difficult to resist. There is compelling pressure to comply with the norm, usually for the sake of children.

In communities such as Singapore and Tokyo, where like in Hong Kong there are only a small percentage of Christians, fortunes are spent on street decorations and public celebrations.

For 33 years, we joined in the Hong Kong festivities. As the family grew, we would enjoy the day with the usual trappings of turkey, ham and plum pudding. I've got to admit, it was an enjoyable custom.

But perhaps one of the best Christmases I have spent was last year on a beach in Danang, Vietnam, far from the traditional festivities and fairy lights. There, no sounds of We Wish You A Merry Christmas intruded; only the whispering waves of the South China Sea. We settled on dinner at a modest dai pai dong with a concrete floor, a thatched roof and no walls. Rickety card tables and a few folding plastic chairs were the only furniture apart from a strategic fridge well stocked with local brews.

Four boys in their early 20s took turns passing around an ancient guitar with only three strings. They sang soft Vietnamese love songs and tucked into a steaming pot above a flaming cooker. The venerable owner, who looked like an aged version of Ho Chi Minh, and his granddaughters kept the beer coming and set up a meal. And there we spent a delightful hour sipping cold beer, dipping chunks of succulent squid into fiery sauces and listening to gentle music.

Despite the absence of any sign of Christmas, that hour we truly experienced the season's message of peace and goodwill to all men.