Early Christmas greetings

I spotted this Father Christmas in Thailand six or seven years ago. I particularly liked his old-style mobile phone and the grubby meringue-like foam on his beer.

Thai SantaBut I also liked the way the sculptor had captured the unfocused bleariness of the drunk Caucasian man, no doubt based closely on first hand observation: the kind of amiability that can so suddenly switch to incoherent rage or, alternatively, collapse into maudlin blithering ending in sleep.

(In Thailand, of course, such unpredictability of mood change wouldn’t just make the difference to whether or not the waiter gets a tip, but could also shape the degree of violence experienced by some poor child in the sex industry. One of the things that upset me most when I was there was the sight of young Thai girls walking down the street hand in hand with beer-bellied white men old enough to be their fathers or in some cases grandfathers, wearing that embarrassed expression that seems almost universal among teenagers that says to any passer-by ‘please don’t judge me by the company I am forced to keep’ – but here meaning so much more than just ‘My Mum is SO uncool’.)

You can see Santa’s expression more clearly in the semi-profile view above than in the prettier shot below that shows him among the poinsettias and greenery of his tropical setting

It is extraordinary the extent to which the Western idea of Christmas has been exported around the world. I have heard little Goan girls who have never seen a snowflake in their lives singing ‘jingle bells’, seen huge replica pine trees in shopping malls in parts of the Southern hemisphere which have no indigenous conifers, and countless images of holly and robins (not to mention 19th century stagecoaches hurtling through snowy landscapes) in places where the cultural references must be sieved through so many half-apprehended filters that they have about as much meaning to the local viewer as the cod chinoiserie on a willow-pattern plate did to me in my Welsh childhood.

The unthinking arrogance with which it is imposed is breathtaking. Remember that Live Aid concert where they sang ‘Don’t they know it’s Christmas?’ over montages of images of starving children in Ethiopia? Was I the only person to wonder ‘why on earth should they know it’s Christmas?’? OK so there are quite a few Coptic Christians in Ethiopia but also, as in most other parts of North Africa, very large numbers of Muslims. Can you imagine a song that goes ‘Don’t they know it’s Eid?’ or, for that matter, ‘Don’t they know it’s Diwali?’.

Research in India shows that one of the most resented features of working in international call centres is being obliged to work through the national holidays, missing out on family get-togethers, but being made to observe Western holidays whether they want to or not. But these cultural differences can be turned into an advantage: during the 1990s I came across a BT call centre in the North West of England where the trade union had managed to negotiate a deal whereby the – largely Muslim – local staff were paid to work over the Christmas and Easter holidays, taking calls from other parts of the country where workers wanted to take the day off, in return for other workers covering their shifts during Eid.

Which brings me to my own ambivalence about Christmas. Much as I dislike many features of it, I do really like the idea that there is a time of year when one catches up with friends and family and shares food and company and gifts and other things take precedence over work.

(But the punishing European Commission funding cycle means that January is always the annual deadline for getting in research proposals so that last part of the above statement has to be modified a bit – this year I am working simultaneous on four proposals all of which will have to be finished before I am due to have my next bout of medical treatment in the second week of January. The timetable seems to be set so that the Fonctionnaires can take their Christmas holidays while the Academics sweat over their laptops. Then in the summer, the same thing happens: off they go to the beach in August whilst those researchers who are successfully funded, have to prepare the documents for the September meetings).

So, in spite of it all, here’s wishing you a very happy winter holiday (or for those in the Southern hemisphere, summer holiday) and all good things in 2012. May it bring you  health and happiness and may it bring the world peace, justice and freedom.

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