VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/24 Dec.) — In a small country where majority are Buddhists, Christmas is definitely not elusive.
Back in my home the Philippines, Davao City is already teeming with Christmas decorations. The façade of the city hall, for example, shimmers with colorful lights at night. Almost all buildings and houses are embellished with plastic pine trees and lanterns as early as September.
But in Vientiane, Christmas decorations are barely seen.
Since the beginning of this month, a few restaurants and apartments which are occupied by expats have modest Christmas trees with blinking lights in the evening. Seen along Dongpalane Road are shops selling packages of “Christmas” food ingredients and bottled wines, wrapped in shiny water cellophanes with golden or red ribbons and greeting cards. Garment shops display mannequins in red Santa-inspired costumes.
Amid a bright sunny sky, the temperature sometimes goes down to 12 degrees here. A much colder breeze than the yuletide seasons in the Philippines! Sweaters, scarves, gloves and socks are far more saleable this month at Talat Sao Mall and Quadin Market. Foreign tourists and expats wear their winter clothes. Some begin fixing their hot showers, while others decide they need heaters, which apparently are not available in most accommodation rooms here.
“The cold temperature right now is making me feel at home,” says Ms Suzie Fairley, a volunteer for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) from the United Kingdom of Great Britain. It will be her first Christmas away from home. She misses her family and friends, “all the Christmas parties”, and the food and drinks, especially mulled wine and minced pies.
“Last Christmas season here was not as cold as now. I’m still wondering,” says Mr Giovanni Solano Villafuerte, a Filipino VSO volunteer and adviser of a non-profit association.
He will not be home again for the holidays this year. He confesses that he is still trying to choose which one to buy: a trench coat or a pair of boots.
“There’s no big celebration here like how Filipinos do it,” he says, adding he misses Noche Buena (midnight meal), with a special mention of fruit salad garnished with keso de bola (cheese) and pancit (Chinese yellow noodles).
“Unlike here, I can feel the spirit of Christmas in my country. Even if you say it’s already commercialized, but it’s still there. Something there that pinches my heart, which I couldn’t find here,” he says.
Somehow, others had done gimmicks to feel the season. For one, a group of young falangs (Lao term for foreigners) in Santa Claus costumes or red clothes accentuated with small bulbs were hopping from one bar to another. They “painted the town red” that night!
Since last month, a few Filipinos who belong to the Sacred Heart Parish choir have been caroling at hotels and other establishments. The Philippine Embassy held last December 11 a little party for kids, dubbed “Mano Po Ninong, Mano Po Ninang”, which is a tradition of gift giving for the children from their godparents.
Despite donating more funds to the survivors of typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines), the embassy still found a way to give joy and hope for the kids.
Last Thursday, the British Embassy hosted a public film showing of Wallace and Gromit. Kids squat inside a tennis court where a pedal-driven projector flashed on a big white cloth. A Lao guy dressed like Santa Claus, minus the big belly, was giving lollipops to everyone, young and old.
Mr Andrea Caletti from Italy has been hosting a party for three years now in his restaurant, Soul Kitchen, in Vientiane. His friends, both expats and Lao, usually share a lot of pizza, pasta and overflowing red wine on the Christmas Eve. He says he’s never been back to Italy since he came here.
In Laos, December 24 and 25 are not official holidays. But Mr Souksakhone Vaenkeo of Vientiane Times says they seem to be treated as holidays by the younger generation. “Pubs and night clubs are always packed with teenagers at night,” he said.
Anyone can take vacation leave if they want. Even Lao journalist, Mr Phonsavanh Vongsay, who is a Christian, will take time off work to spend Christmas Day with his family in Champassak province. He says sharing time with his loved ones in a nutritious dinner and singing – as they are a talented bunch of individuals – makes him feel the essence of Christmas.
But both Australian editors of Vientiane Times, Mr James McDouglas and Mr Dan Riley will spend Christmas in the newsroom, working. “I’ll probably cover my desk with fake reindeer and bottles of Beerlao,” jests James.
Also from Australia is Mr Thomas Gadsen, who works with Lao Ministry of Education and Sports. He will be working in Luang Prabang province on Christmas day to collect education system data. It will be his first Christmas in Laos and first time working on a day that is a holiday in Australia. He adds that he has recently converted to Buddhism “as part of a process of experiencing different religions”.
Ms Fairley will also be working on December 25. “I will work all day but a friend has invited me for a quiet Christmas dinner in the evening at her house,” she tells MindaNews.
For Mr Villafuerte, a bunch of case study reports deserve his attention during the holidays.
Aside from the cold breeze, the yuletide season here is different from what it’s been in Davao City. Somehow, there is no sense of commercialism here. No midnight sales. No panic buying. No countless Christmas parties and exchanging of gifts.
For Christian expats, attending a morning mass and having dinner with good friends are enough to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps, an online chat with my family and short greetings from friends who remember me in the middle of parties can bring the “spirit of Christmas” here from home.
From the cold, foggy karst hills in Laos, Merry Christmas to everyone!
Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.