Published December 21, 2015 in Episode 35
Neighbors in a narrow alley are fussing with a string of holiday lights and discussing how to set them up on the street corner in Sài Gòn's District 8. Not too far away, there are children playing and women hanging their laundry out to dry on a breezy late afternoon. A vendor of bò bía rolls, filled with jicama, eggs and Chinese sausage, announces her goods as she passes by on her motorbike.
One of the neighborhood men says putting up Christmas decoration is a tradition the neighbors here have been doing every year, for the past several decades.
He adds, “Every year, we’ve gotta get new lights. They only last one year. And the nativity scene, we usually don’t build one, but this year, we decided to do it because there are so many kids around, we wanted to make something beautiful for them and play with.”
There is an older woman who owns the big house smack in the middle of the block. She generously supplies the electricity for the lighted decorations during December, the men say. Otherwise, the neighbors would chip in money to pay the electric bill.
During the past few weeks, many people in Việt Nam have been decorating their houses, neighborhoods and wards to celebrate Christmas or Lễ Giáng Sinh. It is indeed a very festive time of the year here!
In Sài Gòn, everywhere you turn, there are lots of bright and flashing colorful lights wrapped around entrances of alleys and street corners, oftentimes surrounding life-size nativity scenes built using painted aluminum as the manger. Particularly in the xóm đào or Christian neighborhoods, such as Gò Vấp, Ông Tà, and District 8, there’s Baby Jesus in a cradle between Mother Mary and Father Joseph and white daisies all around. Shops and food stalls are illuminated with the holiday colors red and white. In the streets, vendors are selling seasonal toys and Santa outfits for children.
Phạm Phúc, who does not identify as a Christian, is a teacher in her 60s. She left her hometown in North Việt Nam along with many Catholic communities for the mass migration to the South in 1954 and has been living in Sài Gòn for the last 50 years. She says Christmas celebrations have changed in Việt Nam over the years to the point that they have been adopted across all beliefs.
According to the U.S-based Pew Research Center, in 2010, only 8.2 percent of people in Việt Nam identified as Christians, most of them as Catholics. The majority of the country, 45.3 percent, practice folk religions and almost 30 percent are non-religious. So it is interesting that while Việt Nam is a predominantly non-Christian country, Christmas seems to be celebrated here by almost everyone.
Nguyễn Huy, a Protestant and a jazz band singer in his late 20s, says he begins the holiday with a religious observation, though not as strict as the Catholics’, and ends it enjoying late night food with his secular friends and neighbors.
“Christmas here is usually celebrated in two days. 24th and 25th of December,” Huy remarks. “The service usually starts from six o’clock in the evening, with some activities like the plays, Christmas Catholic songs, and then we have the priest’s speech. And after the service, people go around in the neighborhood to watch the caves and watch the decorations.”
Huy says he enjoys sharing this inclusive holiday with others. Still, he worries the true meaning of Christmas is being lost. “I think people need to understand that the real meaning of Christmas. That’s the day to celebrate love, celebrate what Jesus sacrificed, for people,” he comments.
But at least in one aspect, Việt Nam has not yet adopted a familiar Christmas tradition from the West: People here do not exchange gifts during Christmas, though families sometimes do give toys and sweets to young children during the festivities. Nevertheless, the intense commercialization and marketing of the holiday has been a boon to local businesses and street vendors.
Phúc remarks on the holidays goods that are being sold and marketed throughout Sài Gòn often times with Western themes such as Santa Claus dolls: “I believe that in recent years, the element of business has dominated the holiday activities. Those who do business know very well how to they sell their products. Restaurant must have guests who come in to dine. Those who produce the ornaments, the toys for the holidays must sell, so they have to create various ways to advertise.”
And with so many young people out and about sometimes until the next morning, taking in the holiday spirit during Christmas night activities, Phúc also has a warning.
“People are often afraid to go out on Christmas night because of heavy traffic, and it is unsafe because there are many more traffic accidents,” she says. “The hospitals run out of space. The emergency hospitals in Hồ Chí Minh City or Hà Nội during Christmas night are all overloaded.”
Sài Gòn's already crowded street traffic becomes even more chaotic during the festivities. As the warm, humid air thickens with exhaust and excitement, Christmas season culminates on December 25th and soon after the country is ready to ring in the New Year.
For anyone who doesn’t care for a White Christmas and can stand the heat and humidity as well as severe traffic, Christmas in Việt Nam can still be a winter wonderland, just of a different kind.
Back in District 8, the street is ready now with colorful lights attached to tiny ornaments all hung up and lit. The entire corner is aglow framing a nativity scene next to images of Santa Claus and snowmen plastered on the walls. On top of the alley entrance, there is an enormous flashing star right above the sign “Merry Christmas." Close by children are playing while neighbors are laughing and chatting with one another.