Commercialism & Christmas in Non-Christian Societies

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 12/24/2013 02:04:00 PM
Thailand features Christmas elephants, f'rinstance
Your Asian correspondent--obviously Catholic with a name like "Emmanuel"--has always found it curious that some of the most extravagant Christmas pageantry can be found in predominantly non-Christian societies. With the exception of the Philippines and (tiny) Timor-Leste, that's practically everyone else in Asia--Hong Kong, Japan, name it. Spending your Christmas holidays in these metropoles and indeed pretty much elsewhere nowadays, you wouldn't even be able to tell that you weren't in a Christian country given the amount of Christmas decorations lining the streets. What's more, their habits of ornamentation and gift-giving usually are more lavish precisely because they are comparatively wealthier countries.

Remarkably, the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of any number of Middle East societies has resulted in a similar phenomenon. Witness even more gigantic Christmas trees in the lobbies of hotels and shopping malls of places alike Abu Dhabi or Dubai. The UAE, of course, is ruled by an Islamic monarchy. But, alike in the Far East, the Middle East has succumbed to similar temptations. As you would suspect, the influx of foreign commercial interests buttresses the natural inclination of expatriates to celebrate the holidays and memories of days gone by. From the Christian Science Monitor:
One curious trend in the global economy is how many countries with few Christians now enjoy aspects of Christmas – the giving of gifts, an exchange of cards, even singing “Last Christmas” by Exile [???--their words, not mine]. What other religion has had its holiday traditions transcend so many borders?

Christmas has become the world’s most widely celebrated religious holiday, even if it is more commercially exploited than religiously observed in non-Christian countries – and even if the Santa Claus fantasies overshadow the day’s real meaning: the coming of Christ to humanity.

To be sure, the spread of Christmas is driven in large part by retailers – and governments – trying to find new reasons to drum up consumer spending. (Halloween and Valentine’s Day are becoming popular, too.) In many Muslim countries, it is this materialistic aspect that is often decried by Islamic preachers. And sometimes, the Christian part gets lost in translation: Foreigners in Japan tell the tale of a Tokyo department store that once decorated a window with a Santa Claus on a cross.
The obvious growth market in a globalized era is the purportedly godless society of the People's Republic of China:
The most explosive growth in celebrating a secular Christmas has been in China. Since the 1990s, the Communist Party has loosened its control over this “Western holiday.” Urban youth have embraced it, seeing Christmas as an opportunity to give gifts, celebrate with friends, and tie up a romance with a wedding. Stores often record their biggest sales around Christmas. Many Chinese can be seen wearing reindeer antlers or Santa hats. Some give specially wrapped apples as gifts (the Chinese word for apple sounds like “Silent Night.”)

As long as Chinese see only the commercial aspects, the government may not worry about the religious meaning. Still, in 2006 a group of university students started an online petition to boycott Christmas, claiming it is a Western plot to erode Chinese culture.
It's a lot of lavishness for a holiday meant to celebrate the coming of a person born in the stables, but I do not necessarily scoff at these practices. During a time when so-called Christian Europe still has a holiday season but has largely forgotten the "Christian" bit retains the "holiday" part, who am I to say the secular celebrants are "wrong"? The IPE of Christmas is simply that its European-based lore is more suitable for commercial exploitation than any other holiday of the major religions. If the Europeans are increasingly secular but still observe Christmas--at least its more overtly commercial aspects--then who am I to judge others who do the same? At any rate, a Merry Christmas to one and all. Somehow, I know you're doing your bit to prop up the consumer spending portion of GDP.
Burj Al Arab, Christmas 2009