All I want for Christmas is cash

IT IS HARD to live a contented life with few possessions and even fewer material desires, expecially if you're living in the city. There's always an excuse to go out to shop, dine and just spend money, usually on things that give you no lasting pleasure.

The worst time of the year is the few weeks preceding December 25 where almost everyone celebrates Christmas, whether they are religious-minded or not.

For the non-religious, to celebrate is to shop, eat and drink. For the religious Christians, it is also to shop, eat and drink and then go to church to listen to carols sung by sweet young things in white, translucent gowns that accentuate their soft curves. In heaven, angels also wear white (not according to the Bible, though), but since angels are male (according to the Bible), there's nothing to oggle.

After Christmas, there will be hell to pay when you open the letter from your credit card company showing the amount of money you owe them. For some individuals though, the payback happens sooner when they drank too much and smashed their car onto a road divider, into another car or into a bus stand crowded with bystanders.

Why is it that white man's festive customs like Christmas bring so many broken limbs and broken lives in their wake? Consider Chinese New Year, the Seventh Month Hungry Ghost and the Fifth Month Dragon Boat and Dumpling celebrations – they bring raucous enjoyment but without the accompanying credit card debt and drunk-driving deaths.

Personally, I welcome all kinds of celebrations as long as they are public holidays when I can rise late, go for a long run in the park and have a leisurely latte.

In Singapore with over 5 million people from all kinds of cultures, we have public holidays to celebrate many kinds of religious and semi-religious occasions – starting with the western New Year on January 1, followed by Chinese New Year (two days somewhere in late January or early February), Good Friday, May Day or Labour Day, Buddha’s Brithday or Vesak, National Day, Hindu New Year, and Muslim Haj and Muslim New Year, and one or two more occasions which I can’t recall offhand.

Except for the shopping malls, Singapore is a dead place during public holidays as few people want to venture outdoors in the hot, humid and sweaty weather. Rain brings little relief because then the weather simply becomes wet, humid and sweaty.

There is a shopping frenzy in the days before Christmas. People elbow each another to buy stuff to wrap as presents to be given to friends and relatives. After all the effort and elbowing, what the givers experience is only a momentary triumph of self-righteous goodness when they hand the presents out. Invariably, the receivers will smile and laugh as they unwrap the package, knowing full well that what is inside is not what they really wanted. (What they wanted are, of course, $900 handphones and one-carat diamonds.)

In America, they have a sensible practice where the receivers sneak into the mall after Christmas to return the gifts for cash. Not so in Singapore where you are stuck with a pile of cheap stuff which you then carefully put aside promising yourself that next Christmas you will recycle them as fresh gifts for your nephews and nieces and other brats, and thus saving yourself a bundle.

Chinese New Year is also a time to give, but unlike Christmas, the gifts are hefty dollar bills inside ang-pows (i.e. red packets). Only married people hand out these cash tributes to unmarried relatives and to children of friends. Hardworking but unmarried individuals (kids and old adults) who makes it a point to visit the homes of all relatives – obnoxious or not – during New Year can easily collect a small fortune.

Ang-pows are also given to newly-weds and newly-dead. In the latter case, it is not called red packets but pek-kim or “white gold” (white being the colour of mourning) and it’s handed to the elderly chap in charge of the funeral, to defray expenses.

Celebrating your funeral these days can cost over $10,000, depending on the number of nights for the wake, the quality of your coffin, the snacks and meals served to your relatives and friends, and the religious folks mumbling prayers, hymns and chants. Priests, pastors and practitioners of the lamentable trades all charge a high fee, and yet they are unable to guarantee you get a respectful reception from King Yama in the afterworld.

Memo to self: set aside sum of money in will, for buying Hell’s banknotes to burn at funeral, to ensure friendly reception from the underworld

Nobody objects to cash, so when the next Christmas comes around, we should give each other crimson dollar bills or shopping vouchers. This way, you don’t get into debt and your heart rejoices because merchants have no opportunity to distract and skin you.

Francis Chin, photo shot on December 2, 2007


Christmas shoppers at Dynasty and Lucky Plaza malls, Singapore