All I know about Christmas is a lie.

Published on Decmber 20th 2015

(TLTR) Despite everything, Merry Christmas.

I was raised in a Catholic family, we live in a parish near the center of SaiGon (aka Ho Chi Minh city). For us, Christmas is as important as Tet - lunar new year in Vietnam. On 24th night, we go to church for carol service which is always overflowing. The masses of people who can’t get in surrounds the church and spilling over into to the streets. Every year, after the Christmas service, we get home and my mom often prepares supper with hột vịt lộn, balut egg – a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. Then she sends me and my sister to sleep, not forget reminds us to put our shoes beside bed for Santa Claus's present.

Christmas in Sai Gon

Christmas in Saigon:

My parish and the whole city are ablaze with lights, nativity scenes and traffic jams. People could spends loads of money and time to prepare for this event of the year. Everyone wants to be the unofficial-best-nativity-scene-decoration. So there has always been a secret competition between shopping malls, parishes, neighbour, and even, within family. Well, the result is hundred of selfie location and new Facebook profile picture.

People usually decorate christmas trees and Santa Claus around nativity scene. So in my tiny 10 years old brain, I thought Jesus were born within the fir forest and Santa Claus is one of the King!! (WTF?)

Eventually I know that there's no fir tree at where Jesus were born and Santa Claus didn't visit him that night. Then why would people celebrate them all together?

Christmas tree:

Christmas tree is believed to be a common Western folk culture practice. The Romans decorate their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. In the Middle Ages, the Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees in their homes or outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. In Northern Europe the Vikings considered the evergreen as symbol and a reminder that the darkness and cold of Winter would end and the green of Spring would return. The Druids of ancient England and France decorated oak trees with fruit and candles in honor of their gods at harvest time.

Imgae source:
But others said that Christmas tree actually a Christianity practice. Traced back to the sixteenth century, when Christianity spread to Germany faithful Christians began decorating trees with apples to represent the famous tree from the story of Adam and Eve. The decorations eventually grew more elaborate, and the tradition of the Christmas tree spread to England in 1848 when Queen Victoria and her German husband, along with their Christmas tree, were featured in the London news. The popularity of Christmas trees then exploded in England and, subsequently, the United States and the rest of the world.

Nativity scene:

Firstly, any picture, image or statue of Jesus Christ for the purpose of worship is in clear violation of the Second Commandment. In Exodus 20:4-5, “You shall not make unto you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them…”

Yet the first nativity scene were set up by Christian in 1223. It was depicted in The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure. According to Bonaventure St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.

Imgae source:
The most interesting debate is the holy family appearance. Historians do agree that Jesus was Middle Eastern descent, which means he almost certainly had dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Yet, the holy family is usually portrayed with porcelain white skin and other Anglo-Saxon features like piercing blue eyes or rosy cheeks. Since human started to portrait nativity scene, Jesus skin colour has always been an unsolved debate. Yet, the Bible keeps silent on the matter of Jesus’s appearance and the rest of the holy family’s.


Imgae by Emilie Voirin
Artist Emilie Voirin create a Minimal Nativity Set exhibited at the high altar of Southwark Cathedral in London from the 23rd of December 2014 to the 2nd of February 2015. According to the Emilie "It is a minimalist version of the biblical scene and it can lead to questions about the accuracy of commercial representations.". So don't you think a life-sized Minimal Nativity Set only with the names set in News Gothic is a good idea?

Santa Claus:

There are different opinion on the origin of Santa Claus, one of that is from Father Christmas in English midwinter. He's a sign of the returning spring and was known as 'Sir Christmas', 'Old Father Christmas' or Old Winter'. A similar figure with the same name exists in several other countries, including Canada, France (Père Noël) and Spain (Papá Noel, Padre Noel). It well explained why Santa Claus in Vietnam is called "Ông già Nô-en", divered from the word Noël under French influence. In the earliest form, Father Christmas was not the bringer of gifts for small children, nor did he come down the chimney. He simply wandered around from home to home, knocking on doors and feasting with families before moving on to the next house.


There's also Slavic character, Ded Moroz, originates from the image of the ancient Morozko. In Russian folklore Morozko is a powerful hero and smith who chains water with his “iron” frosts. Morozko was not hostile to people - he helped them and presented them with awesome presents. He is accompanied by Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper, who wears long silver-blue robes and a furry cap or a snowflake-like crown.

But the closest version to our current Santa Claus is St. Nicholas Sinterklaas in Dutch. Sinterklaas is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on 5 December, the night before Saint Nicholas Day in the Northern Netherlands and on the morning of 6 December. His companion is Zwarte Piet portrayed as a man in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century colourful attire.

It's said that St. Nicholas Sinterklaas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century AD in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn't get married. One night, Nicholas climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in the stocking which a girl had put to dry by the fire.

Imgae source:

So where did our current Santa Claus come from?

When the early Dutch settlers came to America, they brought with them their venerated old bishop. St. Nicholas and their favorite holiday, Sinterklaas. Indeed, the Dutch explorers dedicated their first church on the island of Manhattan, in 1642, to Sinterklaas. When the British took control of New Amsterdam in 1664, they merged Sinterklaas with their Father Christmas.

In 1931, Archie Lee, the D'Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic. So Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom. For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas". Moore's description of St. Nick led to a warm, happy character with human features such as rosy cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes and laughter lines.

Imgae source:
Sundblom’s Santa debuted in 1931 in Coke ads in The Saturday Evening Post and appeared regularly in that magazine, as well as in Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, The New Yorker and others. The Santa Claus we all know and love — big, jolly man in the red suit with a white beard eating fried chicken and drinking Coca Cola!!!!! What's a transformation!

Imgae source: cocacolacompany

Christmas in Asia? Whut?

Christmas culture was also brought to Asia during European colonisation period. Started by Coca Cola with the Santa Claus we all know, nowadays, Christmas has been commercialised all around the world. In Singapore, a friend told me that “Christmas in Singlish means SALE”.

Since then, I realize Christmas is merged by religions, folktales, colonisation, commercialization and advertisement. So when people greet “Merry Christmas”, what do they mean? Is it the birth of Jesus? Is it their hope in the forthcoming spring? Or the long wait for Santa Claus along the HDB corridor? Does commercial force control our celebration? Are Asians have been whitewashed by Western culture? With all the fact about Christmas you have known, would you still tell your kids the story of Santa Claus?

Take your time and think of the answer. For me, one day when I have a child, I would still tell them the myth about Santa Claus as well as Star Wars, Harry Potter and many other Asian folktales.

"Because...the child must have a valuable things which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which [to] live things that never were. It is necessary that she BELIEVE. She must start out believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.” ― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Inside each of us, there's still the child yearning to reach back to our imagination. So Christmas and every kind of celebrations are for us, the young at heart. I'm not sure the idea behind Christmas is always understood, but the spirit is there. And I think the less we celebrate on behalf of any spiritual or ritual, the more we should celebrate.

So let's go out and have lunch with your college, take long leave and visit your family. Most ideally, spend this jolly day with the people you love. If you are separate from them, don't worry. There's no stranger in the world, there's only friend we haven't met. There's party everywhere, come chill and meet your next cool friends (and get tipsy, and then text your ex boyfriend, and kiss a dude over the bar...)

It doesn't matter where in the world you celebrate, as long as you're laughing and happy. So from the bottom of my heart: Merry Christmas!