Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Catholics and Christmas in Vietnam

The vast Catholic churches that serve the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City are also home to eclectic book and gift shops tucked discreetly into side buildings. Around Christmas time they pack up the usual assortment of plastic rosary beads and plaster of paris statues of the Vietnamese martyrs and turn themselves into dazzling winter wonderlands, selling cards, nativity sets and all other kinds of Christmas paraphernalia to the people of Saigon, Christian and Buddhist alike. Christmas is big business in Vietnam, and the Catholic gift shops see themselves as the rightful source of festive tawdriness in all its manifestations. Courting couples hit the Catholic churches to browse the immense stands of cards, and maybe pick up a purple plastic Christmas tree or two. If its Christmas cheer you’re after, your local church will have it in spades.
Tan Dinh church, a pastel pink masterpiece of French provincial frippery at the best of times, is transformed by late November into a riotous Noel-themed fun park. Vast plastic pine trees, their limbs heavy with snow, are hot sellers, and outside the church individual entrepreneurs set up racks and racks of Santa suits in every size – except in sizes that Santa himself would actually fit. It is not unusual to pass someone driving his motorcycle dressed in full Santa regalia – indeed, I have driven past entire families all dressed as Santa balancing on a motorbike. The laws requiring adults to wear safety helmets probably put a dampener on things a little, but the merest suggestion of a red cap and white pom pom poking coquettishly from underneath a helmet is enough to offer a tantalising suggestion of Father Christmas. The only other modification is that Santa is invariably wearing flip-flops.