By Andrew Biggs
I spotted it for the first time at exactly 9.47 pm last Monday, November 2, 2014, as I drove past the car park of Tesco Lotus on Rama 4 Road.
Lit up in neon blue, it spiraled up into the night sky and caught me completely unaware to the point of nearly ramming into the dilapidated green and yellow taxi directly in front of me.
A Christmas tree.
Yes, it was pretty, dear reader, much prettier than the spiky aluminium one they used to heave up in front of Sunnybank K Mart Plaza when I was a kid, around which Salvation Army volunteers would prowl with their bells, buckets and leering smiles. And yet this Tesco Lotus one wasn’t just pretty … it was pretty unnerving, too.
What on earth is a Christmas tree doing in these early days of November?
Were we waiting for Halloween to be over and done with? We have a host of other festivals and public holidays between Halloween and December 25 -- what gives Christmas the right to supersede them all? There’s Loy Krathong … Father’s Day … we’ve even got Constitution Day to get through on December 10 and we don’t even have a constitution!
I have to admit the sight of that humongous neon Christmas tree put a damper on my Monday night. This is not the time to be getting all warm and fuzzy over Christmas. The baby Jesus is still eight weeks off coming into this world; Mother Mary is not even halfway through her final trimester.
And yet here in the proudly Buddhist kingdom of Thailand, inner city malls and department stores are beginning to drag out the trees way before any genuinely Christian country would ever think to do so.
Isn’t this against the law? I could have sworn Father John, in my distant past, had something to say about that.
I was brought up in the Church of England, which when I was a child changed its name to the Anglican Church of Australia. That change was sometime in the 1970s, I remember, when England was constantly beating us in the Ashes cricket tests and Prince Charles was morphing from youthful geek into middle-aged wackiness.
We Australians were trying to distance ourselves from the UK and part of that was changing the popular church’s name.
My local reverend was Father John, a youthful geek as well but very personable and always imparting to those Sunnybank youth forced to attend Sunday School unimportant but fascinating tidbits about Christianity.
Being a problem child with parents desperately wanting at least one afternoon’s respite from me, I was dumped in Sunday School and thus developed a close relationship with Father John though not creepy Vatican close, I hasten to add.
There are two very vivid memories I have of Sunday School.
One is of a pudgy buck-toothed man in his late teens who played guitar for us. Despite his religious loyalty God had seen no reason to be benevolent to him in the gene pool, yet his friendliness and willingness to spread the word was bestowed upon everybody – with the exception of myself. He never liked me thanks to my big mouth.
“You know how everybody says ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer? Well I say ‘A-Lady’,” I, aged 10, informed him one Sunday afternoon as he completed a joyous, if not flat, rendition of This Little Light Of Mine.
My comment went over like a lead balloon.
“That’s not very funny, Andrew,” he replied, creasing his brow and flashing those ivory cathedral doors that occupied his mouth. His reaction led me to believe for years hence that if this flabby Jose Feliciano wannabe really was a messenger of God, then God didn’t possess a sense of humor, not to mention a fitness club.
(In hindsight I was right, judging from those first few Ten Commandments, where God comes right out and admits he is jealous and intolerant of fools. I do worry that my innocent joke is going to be thrown in my face when I hit the Pearly Gates, and could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.)
The second vivid memory of Sunday School was Father John’s appearance towards the end of each year, rubbing his hands together and announcing that “Advent is upon us, so it’s time to drag out the Christmas decorations!”
I may have been an obnoxious kid with a repertoire of pathetic jokes but you know what, dear reader? Who was the ONLY kid in that room to have the Christmas baubles to put his hand up at that moment and say: “What’s advent?”
At least Father John’s reply wasn’t like that of the musical party pooper. He meticulously explained Advent Sunday, though the decades of my life have erased all memory of that explanation, except that to this day I am sure the Christmas decorations come out early December and not before.
After seeing that neon monster last Monday night I checked.
Advent Sunday falls on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. That puts it towards the end of November or the very beginning of December. Advent is the acceptable time to bring out the tinsel and fake snow cans for another year – and Christmas trees.
Such are the cultures and traditions of Christian countries. So why does an overwhelming Buddhist country like Thailand pre-empt the entire western world by putting up its trees a week shy of two months before the event?
Could it be that, since we are intent on returning happiness to the people, the powers that be want Thailand to become a Christmas hub? This word – hub – is a relatively new English word in Thailand that gets bandied about in all top-level economic meetings and press conferences, probably because it’s so easy to pronounce. A lot less difficult than, say, words like “checks and balances” or “culpability”.
In the last year alone I have counted eight different announcements of Thailand becoming a “hub” for something, such as a rubber hub (difficult when the price is at an all-time low), a dental hub, a book reading hub, a medical supplies hub, and a ship construction hub. They have all failed, though we are trying our best to become a tourist murder hub over the last few months, haven’t we?
I don’t think Thailand wants to be a Christmas hub; the country is 90 per cent Buddhist for a start, and while Bangkok over the next month will start draping itself in more tinsel and Happy Snow than any European city could ever aspire to, there is nothing Christian about the celebration.
Christmas is not a religious celebration here. It is all about having fun and bright colors and Father Christmas, without the slightest nod to Mother Mary and the religion she would ultimately give birth to.
So if it’s not about religion, what is it about?
It is something far less ethereal. It’s about competition.
You see, Tesco Lotus is smack bang across the road from Big C on Rama 4 Road, and Big C always puts up an impressive Christmas tree.
Tesco Lotus has beaten its rival to the punch. It has even pre-empted the glamorous high-society trees that will soon sprout outside Emporium and Paragon which require a quarter of Isan’s labor market to construct. This isn’t Christmas we are witnessing; it’s just healthy, godless capitalism at work. With a lot of flashing fairy lights.
“That’s not very funny, Andrew,” I hear you repeating not unlike whatshisname with the guitar. Maybe not … but neither is a Christmas tree in Loy Krathong Week.