A Penny For Your Thoughts by Helen Ann Peters

Christmas shoppers in Kuala Lumpur

Shoppers pose in front of the Christmas tree at Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur (Image from sg.news.yahoo.com)

I found this meaningful article, written by a Kuala Lumpur-based writer, in an old magazine. Because it’s the Christmas season, sharing this article is my gift to you.

Affluent Asia needs to remember that Christmas is about a birth in Bethlehem.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. We remember well this yuletide rhyme from our childhood, but it seems that in these days of mercantile madness, it’s not just the geese that are getting plump. All across Asia, from Bangkok to Batam, Manila to Macau, retailers are cashing in on the season to spend, spend, spend.

Where shopping complexes in Kuala Lumpur once targeted December 1 as the kick-off date for their Christmas promos, this year saw the city awash with yuletide greetings in the first week of November. This over-zealousness did not go down well with everyone, especially some Hindus, who felt shortchanged by the fact that the signboards with Deepavali greetings (the festival was celebrated on November 10) were eclipsed by the more strident Christmas banners. Insensitive, they objected, and this war cry was soon echoed by a few radio deejays.

When the glitzy department stores tout the spirit of gift-giving and generosity in the advertisements, what they can hear is the ringing of cash registers than that wee babe in the manger.

Nobody quite remembers what the lyrics of the Christmas carols mean, so desentised are we by the cacophony and chaos that have come to characterise Christmas in most Asian capitals.

Children, good imitators that they are, offer a reflection of society’s priorities gone awry. Every kid embraces Christmas religiously because it means toys and more toys. Where once we would have been content with paper dolls and cheap plastic tea sets, my nieces today would disown me if they got anything less than Barbie and her entire trousseau. My nephews expect Sega and Nintendo gizmos, not to mention animated triceratops and tyrannosauri. The dinosaur madness, courtesy of Spielberg, will ensure that toy shops across Asia notch colossal sales this Christmas.

I remember the day when we spent the better part of December minding our manners for fear of Santa’s sleigh passing us by. Any behavioural oversight on my part in the days preceding Christmas was enough to leave me in state of deep anxiety. This would be followed by fervent praying in the hope that Santa would forgive me and still bring me all the presents I asked for. It usually worked except for the time when I was so enamoured of Mary Poppins that I hoped she would show up with Santa.

We had to earn our presents, so to speak. The nuns made sure we made our Advent wreath and lit four candles diligently to remind us of the holy season. There was a charity drive at the end of each school year for tinned provisions, used clothing and toys that were distributed to poor families on our carolling rounds, We came back from these nocturnal outings tired and dirty, with mud-caked sneakers, but at least we felt we deserved the right to be happy on Christmas day.

But kids today can get away with murder and still have their Christmas stockings stuffed to the brim. Guilt-ridden corporate parents who do not spend enough quality time with their charges endeavour to expiate their guilt by buying them the most expensive presents, thus reinforcing the wrapped notion that money can buy love.

And don’t make the mistake of threatening errant kids with Santa’s no-show because it is likely they will call your bluff. My nephew, when confronted with a photo of a smiling Santa, was quick to recognise my brother’s visage under the fake beard. I supposed that Santa and his reindeer have a tough time competing for credibility with Cyber Rick and his platoon of stealthy robots.

Money often  often dulls the conscience and makes us blind to the plight of the less fortunate. For us in Asia, the media images of the poor souls of Sarajevo facing another winter of discontent, are just that: images. Some call it compassion fatigue; others blame it on the “me first” syndrome, which is increasingly visible among the nouveaux riches of Asia.

So, it seems affluent Asia will once again greet Christmas with pomp and pageantry, increasingly paying homage to Mammon and turning its back on that babe in Jerusalem.

Is it too much to hope that amid the champagne and roast turkey, fruit cake and egg-nog, we will choose to remember that the rhyme about the goose getting fat has another line: “Please put a penny in the old man’s hat”?

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