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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Oh Christmas spree

Tan Shzr Ee tells why bright lights, kitschy carols and festive spirit make up a Singaporean Christmas
The Straits Times - December 1, 2011
By: Tan Shzr Ee
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Oh Christmas spree Shopping centres along Orchard Road are decked out in splendid decorations every Christmas. -- PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

It's less than a month to the 25th of December today, and finally I tell myself I am allowed to ogle at gaudy lights in the streets without having to affect cynicism at all the obvious year-end consumer-targeted visual aggression.

We're 24 days away from the big morning. And really, it isn't too early to deck halls now, surely?

I hate to admit it but over the years, I have become something of a sucker for the annual Yuletide buzz.

I love the kitschy carols that pipe mock Bing Crosby tones, advertising the over- romanticised 'white Christmas' I was brought up to create little-girl fantasies around in the 1980s, by way of TV advertisements for Metro department store.

I salivate over pictures of turkey in glossy food magazines, even though I still find the bird a tad dry when cooked.

I spend an extra 40 seconds at bus stops oohing over perfect window displays of shiny, not-quite-sensible gifts encased in immaculately stacked boxes - gifts I know I would never pay for on behalf of the penny-pincher in myself.

But can one really buy all the consumerist cheer of Christmas without being consumed by it all?

No - this column isn't meant to be some apologetic meditation on the true meaning of a Christian festival. It isn't even a meditation on anything significantly deep.

If anything, it's just a ramble on how spectacle, when presented with a dash of nostalgia and heightened against the backdrop of potentially traumatic family reunions, can result in emotional, transformative and ritualistic experiences.

Sometimes, it needn't even be about Christmas. Living among an international community of transients in London, I count the different ways in which friends respond to the annual festive assault.

B, born and bred in Britain but with a soft spot for the Middle East, is going to Istanbul for a week to escape the madness of chocolates and mulled wine - 'not the entire world celebrates that festival, you know', she points out.

L, from Spain, moans that London itself is always a ghost town, 'with nobody around on the actual day because everyone here is from somewhere else - and have dutifully returned home to be at that 'somewhere else''.

A, from America, holds Thanksgiving more sacred in terms of family reunions.

K is going back to Japan - but not for Christmas. 'What Christmas?' she asks. 'That's just window-dressing for the New Year.' As far as K is concerned, Christmas is for parties, friends and 'young people', while the most important get-togethers, the visiting of temples, the eating of symbolic meals - 'family stuff' - revolves around the first of January.

I chime in and partly agree: As far as the Chinese New Year is concerned, her theory seems to hold a similar truth in Singapore.

But then I look back on my own bad track record in February months of the past five years and think again: Might I have adapted to the apparently Western approach, celebrating Christmas with family and the New Year with friends and colleagues?

The thing is, my Christmas record over the past two years hasn't been all-star either, having failed to return to Singapore to put myself through the annual meet-and-greet-and-eat rituals. This year, however, I'll be back.

In Singapore, perhaps it's the sacred and the profane all meshed together - Christmas merges into the New Year, in turn merging with Spring Festival: Look at how the same decorations are recycled over three months.

As one former colleague commented on Facebook, there's even no separation of night from day in terms of celebratory madness, what with megawatts of electric bulbs turning the dark hours into 24-hour light from November to February.

But there are rituals and there are rituals. Some, perhaps, are more important than others and I'm not just talking about family reunions and the stress of carving up a turkey or a suckling pig in carefully proportioned unequal parts.

Instead, it's the rallying cry of exuberant consumerism via nostalgia - new old-fashioned glitz in store windows and schmaltzy 'remember the old times' advertisements on buses (never mind the TVs at home).

Cornucopias of tinsel and fake snow create the backdrop to all things money could buy this year, which daydreams now temporarily substitute for.

In London, it's a double-edged nostalgia for those stricken by an economic crisis, reminiscing the free-spending days of 2008. In Singapore, it's an imagined nostalgia for everyone - transients, migrants and long-term residents alike.

While the idea of 'returning home' might mean no more than a 30-minute taxi ride to those born and bred on the island, it certainly isn't the same thing for a worker from Bangladesh or China. Do they necessarily think of family get- togethers at Christmas - for one?

And yet we are all still here, together, mingling in the same streets taking in the same blinking of garish neon floats, revelling in the multiple soundtracks of pretend-Frank Sinatra.

A fairy-tale sense of community emerges when the island is suddenly full of everyone, everything, every kind of light and every kind of noise; everywhere.

This year, I'm determined not to blow away all my dosh on candy-coloured packages wrapped in satin ribbons. I'm not sure if I am frivolous enough to squeeze an oversized Christmas tree into my parents' small flat either.

But I've got lots of spending to do: of visual feasting, of sensorial consumption. I'll be taking in as much kitsch, spectacle and atmospheric buzz that makes for the clearing out of the annual emotional bonus in my spiritual bank account.

And merry Christmas or no, I'll surely be spending it fully and eagerly.



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