Thursday, May 6, 2021

Dreaming of a monsoon Christmas

What does Christmas look like in Malaysia if there is no snow, no reindeer and no one-horse open sleigh?

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Walking through a mall in December one year, it occurred to me that I didn’t know what a Malaysian Christmas looked like. Ironically, the thought came as I was wandering through what could rightfully be called a winter wonderland. Christmas trees of every size stood about, hung with colourful baubles and long strings of tinsel. Fairy lights twinkled from garlands and wreaths, and fake snow lay thick on models of reindeer and gingerbread men. Everything looked lovely, and I was enjoying myself tremendously but I couldn’t help wondering where Malaysia was in all of it.

I would like to say at the outset that Malaysians are very good at decking the halls. Many of our malls pull out the stops every year, putting even some of their overseas counterparts to shame. And until recently, I used to drive past two houses – one in Petaling Jaya and the other in Subang Jaya – which were so ablaze with lights and decorations that people would stop by the side of the road to take pictures.

Turkey and mashed potatoes, synonymous with the occasion, are available along with all the trimmings at nearly every restaurant serving Western food, with catering services available for those who wish to dine at home. At malls, children (and their long-suffering parents) wait in line to meet Santa and tell him what they hope to find under the tree on Christmas Day. And well-known songs such as “Let It Snow” and “Jingle Bells” are played on loop until well after Boxing Day.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with celebrating an occasion in the spirit of its origins. Across much of the world, evergreens and snow are a big part of Christmas and what people count on to help usher in the festive cheer. Putting up the tree is definitely one of my favourite things to do and something I look forward to all year.

But part of me also wanted to know if it was possible for Christmas to be Malaysian, too, not just a foreign celebration imported wholesale with its overseas trappings. Walking through the mall that day, I thought perhaps it was.

Every Christmas, my siblings and I have dinner at my parents’ place. And every year, right next to the turkey, is a big pot of asam laksa. If you ask me, I have no idea why it’s there, but for as long as I can remember Christmas dinner has meant asam laksa and hands that smell like fish for days after because of all the skinning and deboning needed for the fillets in the soup.

We’re not the outliers here, either. Open houses, so integral to Malaysian culture, are thrown every year for every occasion and Christmas is no different. Regardless of race or religion, we gather to celebrate festive seasons, usually over plates of ubiquitous fried rice, mee hoon and curry.

And no celebration is ever complete without the people, in this case the wide range of men, women and children who make up the country. For many, Christmas is not a personal celebration but this does not stop them from joining in the festivities, nor should it.

Some time back, there were concerns about those from a particular race wishing others a Merry Christmas. Today, many stores appear still cautious about using the phrase in their year-end marketing, preferring more lukewarm expressions like “Happy Holidays”. But the fact of the matter is, Christmas is the name of the festival and there is nothing inherently dangerous in including the word in greetings any more than saying “Happy Birthday” actually makes the person turn another year older.

If stores, in particular, are looking to profit from the season, they would do well not to water down the occasion by glossing over the reason people are buying gifts in the first place. And, as the saying goes, the more the merrier: while we may not partake in the religious ceremonies involved in a given celebration, that does not mean we cannot participate in the joy around it. Some of my favourite sights at this time of the year are of Malaysians, whatever their beliefs, enjoying the festivities, taking selfies, smiling, laughing and having a good time.

So if you ask me now what a Malaysian Christmas looks like, this is what I’d say: good food, local or otherwise; no snow but a strong chance of rain pounding down because it’s monsoon season; scorching hot temperatures otherwise; and the privilege of sharing a celebration with others who do not necessarily share your beliefs but understand the importance of rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Have a very merry, very Malaysian Christmas this year – just minus the open house bit because, you know, Covid.

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