It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Festive sales, holiday deals, and free wrapping services everywhere.
In other words, another Christmas in Singapore. The season of gifting.
Earlier last month, when glittering decorations along the Orchard Road stretch was decked out with Disney characters and triggered the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), it got the nation debating over the meaning and origins of this public holiday. While this discussion was inevitable due to the wide diversity of our backgrounds and beliefs, tolerance and acceptance for these differences were also tested.
Aside from the ubiquitous songs that croon about silent nights, when was the last time we associated this day with religion? How did this capitalist-driven celebration of gifts and family become imbued with theology?
For me, Christmas has always been a celebration of a decidedly secular nature. It doesn’t mean that the significance of masses held in churches with magnificent choruses or realistic displays of the Nativity scene is any less valid to me. In acknowledging cultural differences, Australian professor Colin Mackerras rationalise the validity of all opinions as: “What all observers…appear to have done is to filter what they see through the spectacles of their own backgrounds, ideologies, biases, and experiences, and they cannot avoid the impact of the period and place in which they live.”
The culture in our country has always been very pragmatic. We like to show our affections in terms of practicality, which often translates to gifts. This explains why most brick-and-mortar stores draw the bulk of their crowds during this period. The 2015 UOB survey reported that consumers in Singapore set aside an average of S$769 for their festive shopping, and most of it goes back to treating ourselves. With mental wellness being a buzzword for 2018, one can only imagine how much more we want to invest in ourselves during the most wonderful time of the year.
Take the 14-metre tall Cartier Ferris Wheel erected in front of ION Orchard: it is spectacular, sparkling, and utterly devoid of any “Christmassy” significance outside of the boundaries of our society. But it does not mean that it is not grand. The ferris wheel has traditionally been a symbol of progress. It brings people together and becomes a family activity. It dominates the stretch to say that it is the season of gifts.
The pièce de résistance operates with a photobooth for visitors to take kaleidoscopic or animated photographs, almost like a symbol of our cultural mishmash or continual advancement. The Ferris Wheel itself is imposing, positively redefining the “mass” of the holiday.
The fluidity of our celebrations also allows for unorthodox public gifts such as importing an entire museum from France. Virtually Versailles, the inaugural digital exploration of the opulent castle of the same name with an audience of about 8 million people a year, opens at ION Art and Sky from December to the first week of January. In a way, this hybridised conception represents what Singapore constantly strives to do: act as the bridge between past and present, dedicated to the spirit of innovation, while still emphasising on experience.
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For example, the smell of orange blossom throughout the gallery (the king’s favourite scent) or the ability to visually consume oil paintings at 20,000 pixels thanks to Google— the intrinsic nature of this ornate exhibition reflects the innate DNA of the original Palace of Versailles. In addition, shopping can be done through an intricate QR code system where purchases are directly shipped from France. This Christmas, we are being treated to opportunities where experiences become presents, and presents become an experience.
Even as this becomes a decidedly transactional relationship, it really harks back to how our nation has shaped this festive period from one generation to the next. Rev Miak Siew from the Free Community Church affirms that Christmas in Singapore has long ago been secularised, evident in gift exchanges, parties, and gatherings. Instead, he is more concerned about how “we are caught up with the festivities and lose sight of the least amongst us, lose sight of the conflicts all over the world, [rather] than how Orchard Road is decorated”.
The true meaning of Christmas to him is about the spirit of giving, over gifting. “Christ is God with us (Emmanuel) – and specifically chose to come as the most vulnerable (a babe) in the midst of the commonfolk in the humblest of settings. It is about a different kind of world – one of peace and love for all, one not about the material things we have but about giving of ourselves to others,” he said.
So how about we just accept differences as a way of doing and/or feeling good? “Doing good deeds must be rediscovered to be a part of human nature, and we know that religions can do good too. People shouldn’t irrationally claim public domain exclusively, or irrationally deny others the peaceful enjoyment of that which is common,” shared Humanist Society Singapore, when asked about non-religious gestures that power Christmas in our country.
In the end, everyone wants a merry little Christmas. Whether we find goodness in the spirit of gifts or God, it is this sense of openness that will push us beyond whatever culture we find ourselves confined within.
Cartier Ferris Wheel
When? Now till 1 Jan 2019
ION Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, Singapore 238801
When? Now till 6 Jan 2019
ION Art Gallery, 2 Orchard Turn, Level 4 next to Lobby A, Singapore 238801