If we take an honest look at the holiday’s bloody history, the commercial circus it has become today and the tremendous stress felt during this time, it’s easy to see plenty of negatives. As Christmas gains popularity in Vietnam and HCMC, it will be interesting to see what course it will take here.
The Violent History of Christmas
Many countries around Europe have been celebrating what we now call Christmas for over 2,000 years, and its roots lie in polytheistic pagan traditions.
In Germany, people went into hiding from the god Odin, who would fly around at this time of the year to observe his people. Those not living in accordance with the pagan belief were thought to perish. So people stayed indoors to avoid judgement. This was a time a fear.
In Rome, the celebration was known as Saturnalia in honour of the agricultural deity Saturn.
“Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Businesses and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.” (History.com)
By the Middle Ages Christmas had finally replaced the pagan versions of this celebration, as Christianity overtook most of Europe.
“On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief.” (History.com)
By the 17th century Christmas entered another stage as Oliver Cromwell and his genocidal gang of Puritans took control of England. Cromwell cancelled Christmas in hopes of keeping England free from the sinful behaviour he believed to be associated with the holiday. Shortly thereafter, King Charles II came to power and Christmas was reinstated. This was a time of savage bloodshed and war, and a raucous time between Protestants and Catholics that resulted in thousands of deaths.
As Christmas was a key practice in the Christian religion, it was often a catalyst for disputes between different religious sects. So much for Christmas cheer. The next wave of change came about in the United States after the American Revolution. In the early 19th century, Christmas was often met with rioting from the poverty-stricken lower classes.
As a result, many citizens and the governments of both the United States and England demanded that citizens hold more peaceful and family-oriented celebrations. These changes resulted in many of the common customs we still uphold today.
Western Commercialisation of Christmas
So, are we any better off? When looking at the ridiculous commercialisation of Christmas in the West, it seems we are still missing the point.
Advertising agencies have worked tirelessly to create the need to buy, buy, buy. In 2013 alone, the United States retail industry raked in over $3 trillion, according to statista.com. Since 2000, there has been a consistent increase in retail sales; Christmas has become more about spending money than anything else.
In addition to the shopping madness and the deaths associated with religious fanaticism, let’s not forget that for the less fortunate, this has always been a time of depression, despair and at worst, suicide.
A 2014 study in Queensland, Australia, looking at the years 1990 to 2009, found a statistically significant increase in suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
Christmas in Vietnam seems to be much more down to earth. Although it is a new concept that is being warmly embraced regardless of religion, it seems to uphold the values that have been lost in the West.
In HCMC, families spend time together, there is no serious pressure to spend hundreds of dollars on gifts, and the general atmosphere is much more pleasant and unrestricted. Perhaps we in the West need to rethink how we celebrate.