Christmastime in Laos

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Christmastime has been an unexpectedly bizarre time in Vientiane. We knew full and well that Laos was a predominately Buddhist country before moving here, and consequently assumed that our observance of Jesus’ birthday would be a sideline event among a small minority of Westerners. Oh, how wrong we were, or at least partially.

Spending Christmas in Vientiane in 2016 confirmed three of my long-held suspicions: 1) Christmas, the world over, has in fact morphed into two distinct (and distinctly observed) holidays, 2) that Western culture and commercialism has indeed permeated Communist Laos society in ways that I hadn’t previously imagined, and 3) Laotians never fail to surprise.

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So, before we get into a Christmastime trip around Vientiane, consider the following. Out of a population of 6.5 million, 67 percent of Laotians are Theravada Buddhist and 31.5 percent practice a variety of folk religions. About 1.5 percent of the population of Laos consider themselves Christians. There are a lot of Christian Westerners, I’m sure, who would see something inherently wrong in those figures. Personally, I don’t. We each come to know our Creator in myriad ways — or we don’t — which is the prerogative of the individual as well. The stats are important for understanding the lay of the land here, so to speak, with nothing else implied.

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When signs of Christmas began surfacing about a month ago in the most falang corners of the capital city, Lori and I didn’t think much of it. It made sense, we thought. The decorations and holiday season food menus were aimed at the many Western foreigners and expats that frequent those Western-oriented establishments.

And then, something truly bizarre began to happen.

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Santa (very often sporting a saxophone, no less) began to crop up in the unlikeliest of places, like along major thoroughfares (above).

Outside of fake flower shops…

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And at your friendly neighborhood power tool shop…

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Then, the Christmas trees began to appear at local bars and nightclubs…

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Christmas decorations went up around Buddhist spirit houses…

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And Santa became very busy watching over cases of beer.

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In fact, Santa and Christmas trees started appearing almost everywhere in town.

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This Santa’s marked down from an obscene 600,000 LAK. He’s yours for around US$60. In comparison, the average Laotian makes around US$144 per month. Let’s just say that the number of “average” Laotians in Vientiane has shrunken significantly in the last five years. Really shrunken. Still, that’s a lot of Kip for a Santa in a country that doesn’t even celebrate Christmas…or do they?

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No matter how many Santas we saw around town, it obviously wasn’t enough. Roadside Santa costume shops soon began to spring up as well…

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This particular Santa shop is right down the street from us. If we had seen this downtown or in the diplomatic area, it wouldn’t have surprised us one bit. But here, in our very Lao neck of the city, it threw us for quite a loop.

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For the last two weeks, I’ve been walking by (or rather, through — it is right in the middle of the sidewalk, after all) this shop, thinking to myself who the heck buys these and what could they possibly use them for? Then, Lori and I received an invitation to a Christmas party and got our answer.

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The Christmas party in question was actually at Noe’s Laotian daycare that he attends a couple times a week. I don’t know what the Buddhist-to-Christian ratio is at the school, but given that Noe is the only falang kid currently attending, I’d imagine it is comparable to the national average.

With that in mind, we planned to attend, thinking of course that it would be a pretty low key event.

Oh, were we ever wrong.

Never in my life have I seen anything quite like this. Every, and I mean EVERY child there was dressed up in festive red attire — but for our poor Noe…we missed that part of the memo, and plus, he’s a baby, right?

DOESN’T MATTER!!!

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Noe didn’t care, of course. He was a space cadet for most of the party. Me thinks there had been a lot of stimulation that day at daycare. Heck, I was exhausted after an hour of watching the various games and performances. You want to see kids get fired up about Christmas? Come to Laos! And what kid wouldn’t get all fired up when there are games and dancing and every kid gets a gift? (except our dear Noe, of course…mommy did bring a gift, but being the minimalists that we are, Noe’s caretakers misinterpreted the recycled bag from a local cafe and its contents to be part of Noe’s daily accoutrement). For the next twenty minutes, Laotian kids left and right were shredding open the beautifully wrapped toys and gifts that would make our four-year-old American nephew green with envy.

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After the party, we snapped a couple of pictures in front of their incredible recycled Solo cup snowmen (believe me, the irony was not lost on us…). And, yes, that is indeed Noe’s gift and gift bag. Mom was pretty proud of herself for that one.

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Since we don’t have a Christmas tree of our own this year, Lori made it a personal mission early on to try and get Noe’s pic in front of as many Christmas trees as we could find. In early November, we chuckled at the thought of spotting anything resembling a Christmas Tree. A week or two ago, we stopped taking pictures because the number of trees was getting ridiculous.

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Which brings us to Christmas Eve.

We had read about a hotel on the water serving a special “Christmas menu” and went down to check it out. Still, after all we had seen over these past weeks, we thought we’d see the regular crowd of Laotians out enjoying their Saturday evening, and a smattering of expats at the hotel restaurant marking the occasion with family and/or friends.

We arrived at the waterfront, and were surprised to see this.

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Just a little shindig on the water. Not where we were headed, thankfully, but the dance music could be heard from all around.

We arrived at our destination and found the place packed — PACKED — with Laotians — you guessed it, dressed in Santa costumes — singing karaoke and partying. Christmas carols, perhaps? Of course not! Because that would just be ridiculous.

So, we ended up at Spirit House, amongst a small group of Westerners marking this special night in a low key way with loved-ones around.

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I thought the festive atmosphere of the night, along with all the fuss here over Christmas, might have made us feel a bit closer to home during the Christmas season. But really, it just made me feel disappointed and disheartened. What was really behind all the Christmas mania? Lori asked a couple of her coworkers and their response in a nutshell was that it’s another reason to have parties. But why go through all of the effort? The Santa costumes, the trees, the events. Vientiane society had essentially taken the fully-developed secular version of Christmas from Europe or the U.S. and transplanted it here, complete with the commercialism and superficiality that often accompanies it. There was no sign of baby Jesus, nativity scenes or religious-themed Christmas songs, which isn’t unusual in public spaces in North America or Europe because the holiday season has become so entrenched in secular society. But for whatever reason, here in Laos, seeing the practice of the secular version of the holiday to such a large extent, and using it as an excuse to consume and drink — in the very country that had struck us four years prior as one of the last corners of the world largely untouched by this sort of thing — elicited strong emotion. In addition to all of this, I couldn’t stop thinking about how back in the U.S. we don’t turn sacred Buddhist holidays into a reason to drink and party.

Thankfully, Christmas is always what you make of it, and we’ve had a lot of fun over the past weeks introducing Noe to some of our favorite Christmas traditions.

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For Noe’s first Christmas Eve, we treated him to some rare screen time on the computer. Lori pulled up a video on YouTube of “Santa” reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. And as you can tell, he was quite fond of it.

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We hung our stockings from the flat-screen with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas would soon be there…

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In the wake of Christmastime craziness here in Laos, the saxophone Santas and plastic LED Christmas trees on every corner, the innumerable men and women roaming drunk around town dressed in Santa costumes, and all the money being spent in the face of such immense poverty in the rest of the country (this is, after all, still one of the poorest nations on Earth), it was important for me to ground myself in some meaningful way to the spirit of the season. As a religious minority, I certainly didn’t come to Laos expecting this country to cater to me and my beliefs in any way. But following these surreal past few weeks building up to Christmas, it was all the more comforting to find a place of the worship that I felt appropriately marked the occasion. The choice was clear in that respect: The beautiful Church of the Sacred Heart in the center of Vientiane — quite possibly the only official government-sanctioned structure solely dedicated to Christian worship in the entire country.

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The 10:30am English mass was nice and low-key, a refreshing chance for quiet contemplation on this holy day.

Though, I think Noe may have found it all a bit too low-key…

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An obvious highlight of our day was getting our photo taken with Pope Francis!

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Quite possibly the first Nativity scene we’d seen all season, despite all of the “Christmas” around us these past few weeks.

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A friend had recommended a really good back-alley Laotian place for Christmas lunch, as she and a group of friends had had a great time there the previous Christmas. We arrived hungry and excited all to find that the place was unexpectedly closed. The owner, a Lao lady, said they were closed for “Christmas.” Of course.

So, we went to our second choice and had a lovely Christmas brunch with a nice view to boot.

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Always love the view in the mens room here, too.

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The rest of the day was spent Skyping with family and relaxing at home.

In the end, not a bad way to spend Christmas in Southeast Asia, if you ask me.

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Daily Life, December 2016
Date Day in Vientiane
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