Christmas Cheer in Chiang Mai, Without the Sprouts!
I say we hand the job of celebrating Christmas in Thailand over to whatever genius committee or quango came up with Loy Krathong and Songkran. Just imagine what the Thais would do if the baby Jesus has been Buddhist. Unfortunately, in a nation that does festivals centred on blowing stuff up and chucking water at each other so very well, the celebration of a baby being born in a shed with a donkey, and a bizarre fascination with the Brussels sprout, has failed to break out in the Land of Smiles much past the confines of malls, resorts and expat pubs.
Perhaps this is because garish Christmas decorations work when the days are dark and entering the bright lights of a department store is a welcome relief to the bitter winter cold. But tinsel and fairy lights fail to do the job when walking in from glaring sunlight and 35 degree heat. And piped Christmas tunes, well they are completely out of place. Grating in any London shop, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” in Tops Supermarket just feels sad.
But think of what the government’s Department of Festival Fun could do if they took Christmas by the scruff of the neck. Thousands of reindeer shaped khom loy drifting through the night air scaring the bejeesus out of airline pilots, Chiang Mai’s kratoey contingent parading down Loi Kroh in skimpy Santa Claus outfits, exploding papier mache snowmen floating on the gravy and chestnut-stuffing filled moat and tuk tuks transformed into mobile nativity scenes. Awesome. They’d have Christmas trees flown in from Scandinavia and decorated with baubles shaped like Manga characters. Dwarves! Oh God, imagine the sugar and alcohol content of a Thai Christmas pudding. Flippin’ awesome.
Although I’m no fan of the word awesome, especially in relation to a tasty cup of coffee or a smart pair of trousers, the adjective is not out of place when it comes to Loy Krathong or Songkran. In fact they deserve completely new superlatives. Lightastic Loy Krathong and Soaktabulous Songkran, perhaps. I suppose the birth of Jesus was awesome in the proper sense of the word, but I suspect that midnight mass at the Chiang Mai Community Church is not going to be quite as mind-blowing as a gazillion sky lanterns being launched at Mae Jo.
On the Saturday morning as the first of a billion fireworks were popping in the sky, I strolled down to 7-Eleven to buy one of their fabulous cheesy toastie snacks. A cheesy toastie snack always makes me feel better about the night before, especially when I had drank a tad too much and gotten my head shaved. So everything was pottering along as usual, except for the fact that at 10.30 a.m., instead of an underarm whitening deodorant promotion in front of the cash register, there was a barrel of ice and beer going on. I asked the charming lady behind the counter why her bosses were punting booze at me on a Saturday morning and the reply was: “It’s Loy Krathong!” The lovely lady then asked me where I was from; she bet I was English, and was right on the button. She then asked me what everyone back in Britain was doing for the festival of lights, and I was stumped. “We don’t do Loy Krathong at home,” was my reply, and for the life of me I could not come up with anything for her retort: “Why not?!”
I think this small anecdote justifies my reasons for wanting the Thais to take over Christmas. Chatting to a friend over a glass of something fizzy, she told me that her boyfriend had asked her what the “Jingle Bells” thing was all about. It transpired that he assumed “Jingle Bells” was a verb and asked whether, at Christmas, he would be permitted to “Jingle her Bells.” And how lovely is that? So, I propose that this Christmas we all find someone to “Jingle Bells” with. Blimey, imagine what would go on over the festive period if mistletoe grew in the Land of Smiles!
Thankfully “Bah Humbug!” is not a trait one often associates with the Thais. The weather is fabulous in Chiang Mai throughout December (although just hot enough to make dressing up in a heat-stroke-inducing Father Xmas costume ill-advised). There is just enough Christmas going on for those who need to get their fix of turkey and Brussels sprouts. Nearly all of the farang-oriented bars will be serving up something that vaguely resembles a traditional Christmas spread and Rimping Supermarket is already stocking all that is necessary for those who will be celebrating at home on the 25th. And I have heard tell that there is a man with a van selling turkeys and probably a bag of Brussels sprouts. Just to dwell on the sprout for a sec, when did it become okay to swallow something that tastes like a burp?
I have to admit, though, that I miss Christmas. I miss the miserable weather. Although after years in Thailand a gentle gust of British winter wind would probably kill me, I actually miss the shorter days, walking into the warmth of a London pub, curling up under the duvet, arguing with my family and trying to avoid the Brussels sprouts.
And the build-up. I miss the build-up. From the first time somebody says at some point in early November, “Is that a bloody Christmas carol?” to the creeping dread throughout December that you still haven’t even thought about Christmas shopping, the ever so slightly disappointing office parties, the hangovers and the public transport delays because of course nobody anticipated that December in a country on the same latitude as Russia can get a bit chilly, again.
I miss my friends, but since I moved to Chiang Mai they have all got married and all have at least one small child. I’m willing to concede that perhaps this would mean I wouldn’t be centre of attention if I turned up with a bottle of Jacob’s Creek shouting “surprise!”
Although I have never been much of a one for the traditional family Christmas of chestnut stuffing and recriminations that have been building up over the past year and pop to the surface after a couple of champagne cocktails, I do miss all the crap that goes with the festive season. I miss the carols on the radio, a warm house when it’s bitterly cold outside, the pointless presents that show someone was thinking of you, if just for a moment, trying to get an inappropriate snog off a colleague at the office party, and the anticipation before finding out which talentless twat from Britain’s Got the X Factor has made it to the number one spot in the hit parade.
So what am I trying to say about Christ’s birthday in the Rose of the North?
There is an acceptance, but no real embrace. Perfunctory-looking decorations will be hung in unlikely locations, or look slightly bedraggled as they have been cooking in the sun since last December. Christmas dinner will be served with bottles of Singha and glasses of the despicable Mont Clair and presents will be opened. Crackers will be pulled, but there will always be a slight feeling that the paper hats and terrible jokes that spill out are a little forced. Missionaries may have been able to export Christianity to all corners of the globe, but one feels that the translation of the faith’s religious figurehead’s birthday party into a country of temples, Buddhist monks and a lack of Brussels sprouts was slightly lost.
But this year, I’m going to make an effort. This year I’m going to put up a bit of tinsel, connect to a radio station playing 24-hour carols and go out for an overcooked Christmas lunch. I will then retire with a bottle of inexpensive red wine, pull a cracker with myself and settle back to watch “Love Actually.” I’ll have a brief moment of completely fictional nostalgia about Christmases past, but then I’ll remember that I live in the greatest place on the planet, that I didn’t have to eat any sodding Brussels sprouts and all will be right with the world.
Until the Thai authorities get on board with the trick they are missing by not bigging up the son of God’s birthday, I’ll have to settle for a Richard Curtis rom-com and its saccharin gorgeousness letting me know that even politicians fancy the tea-girl, that rock stars are lonely and that all American girls fancy an English idiot. Possibilities are endless. Happy Christmas, wherever you are.