The marketing miracle of Christmas in Hong Kong

Make no mistake, the festive season has real significance -meaning it's money for business and money in the bank for traders

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 December, 2013, 2:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 December, 2013, 2:00am

Every now and again some bright spark informs us that religion has a bigger part to play in the Christmas festival than commerce. There may well be sound historic reasons for this claim but frankly, here in Hong Kong, who are they kidding?

Indeed a careful examination of the origins of this festival point rather forcibly to its fiscal and commercial significance in ways that have been distorted by emphasising a tale involving the Son of God.

Even non-Christians are happy to acknowledge that someone called Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago; Muslims even include him among their prophets. And, of course, there is little controversy over his religion at the time of birth because he could have been nothing other than Jewish. So, that's dealt with the theological questions.

However, the narrative gets a lot more complicated in all other respects. Sticking to the purely commercial strands of the story is helpful. This starts with the fact that Judaea was under Roman occupation at this time and the Romans were not only avid colonisers but also particular about extracting taxes from the people they ruled. In part to collect these taxes and in part to perform a kind of census, the Romans insisted that taxes be paid at certain centres, forcing travel to these places at designated times of the year.

Think of Bethlehem as being Beijing and you get a clearer picture of what went on there

Thus Jesus' family found themselves in Bethlehem (a vague transliteration from the Hebrew name, Beit Lehem), meaning house of bread - oh yes, there was trade specialisation back in those days, even though the town was also known as Beit Lachama, (but that's a whole other story) where they had to report for the census.

Anyway, back in those days when, would you believe it, it was impossible to pre-book accommodation online, all forms of accommodation in the town rapidly filled up with guests. Allocation of space followed the rigid rules of commerce, which meant that those willing to pay the most got the best rooms. Thus a poor family from Nazareth had little chance of securing comfy accommodation in an inn but was able to find shelter in a stable.

What went on in that stable is the subject of intense controversy. Mainstream Christians insist that a virgin birth took place and this event was accompanied by a visit from three kings bearing gifts.

Let's pause at this gift juncture because it offers a telling account of what happens when a new leader emerges. Those with an elevated place in society, the sort of people we fondly refer to as tycoons in Hong Kong, naturally wish to ensure that their positions are secured. One typical way of doing this is by making a beeline to the new leader and showering him with gifts. For those not too well versed in biblical matters, think of Bethlehem as being Beijing and you will get a clearer picture of what went on there.

Now we get to some tricky bits of the story because a great deal of historical evidence points to the fact that the Romans were unlikely to have held a tax paying/census event in the cold weather of December. But this timing rather closely coincides with pagan winter solstice festivals that pre-date the celebration of Christmas, and there is a strong suspicion that the dates were brought together in an inspired marketing move to increase the popularity of Christianity and to fulfil the winter festivals' objectives of lightening the gloom of long nights and cold days.

Those of us in the business community can fully appreciate the value of this timing because it is hard to get people out of their houses in inhospitable weather, and holding a major mid-winter festival can help overcome this reluctance and generate a spot of enterprising commerce.

In the modern age our sophistication has shown just what can be done as a spin-off from Christmas, making it the best month of the year for retail sales and a positive bonanza for those of us in the food and beverage business. And then there's the genius of extending the season by holding major sales just after Christmas.

Oh yes, make no mistake, Christmas means money for business. Even in places like Hong Kong, with a lesser Christian tradition, Christmas spells money in the bank for traders.

Naturally, I need to apologise to those who view Christmas as a religious festival, but to be blunt: you are in a distinct minority. Meanwhile, may I urge you to carry on spending.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster

Tom Holland is on holiday