Ause Abdelhaq looks at the way Christmas and its alternatives are celebrated in other cultures.
Since the end of the last great recession in the United States (1982), various holidays have become synonymous with commercialisation, with some even being invented for the very purpose of selling merchandise. While Valentine’s Day, Easter and Halloween each signal huge increases in sales, when it comes to profits, no holiday comes close to Christmas.
In this part of the world, the commercial aspect is integral to the Christmas atmosphere; we’re constantly bombarded with advertisements selling us the concept of the perfect present and the romantic idea of shopping on a snow-laden high street under the lights is present in all the movies. In recent years, we’ve even gone so far as to start rating our advertisements against each other, with corporations investing millions into creating the quintessential Christmas ad.
“In this part of the world, the commercial aspect is integral to the Christmas atmosphere”
But it’s not Christmas all over the world. In fact, in many places, Christmas isn’t celebrated at all, and where it is, it’s in private, away from the glare of the public eye. For example, in Russia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, the day that Jesus was born according to the Julian calendar. Nikita Ilyinski is the Auditor of UCD Russian Society and has experienced the celebration first-hand. When asked about the scale of festivities on the day, he said “it’s not grand and widely celebrated – it’s just a small family holiday, indoors for the most part.” He mentions that the religious aspect of Christmas is incredibly important, but the commercial element is virtually non-existent. He says because religion is such a sensitive topic in a post-Soviet community, where secularism was encouraged, people tend to take it very seriously and “wouldn’t shove a picture of Jesus onto a For Sale sign, because offence would be taken and blasphemy laws are in place.”
“It’s just a small family holiday, indoors for the most part”
In other societies, Christmas is a similarly private matter. Xinyi Hong is the Auditor of UCD’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA); according to her, “China doesn’t have a lot of Christianity; there’s not a big Christian population so in terms of the majority of Chinese people, they don’t celebrate or take time off work.” However, when it comes to the commercial side of the holiday, she stresses that Chinese businesses take advantage of the season anyway. In a similar manner to our part of the world, “during Christmas there are big discounts too – it’s just another excuse for shops to promote on sales.”
Anan Abduljaleel, the Auditor of UCD Arab Society, grew up in Kuwait, where Christmas is barely present. She says that abroad, there are other holidays which could be seen as the cultural equivalents to Christmas – annual festivities which create the same atmosphere of excitement and warmth, but for completely different religious reasons. For her, being raised in the Middle East, there were two: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, with the former being the largest celebration of the year. She says that Eid al-Fitr “is the one after Ramadan, which in itself is a huge 30-day celebration – and Eid is like the culmination.” In her descriptions of the decorations surrounding the occasion, and the build up to it, she highlighted the similarities between festivities: “The streets are all lit up, traffic is crazy and the atmosphere is amazing – just like in Ireland.”
“The streets are all lit up, traffic is crazy and the atmosphere is amazing”
Abduljaleel’s sentiments were echoed by Ilyinski and Hong – both considered other holidays as the major celebration of the year. According to Ilyinski, “New Year’s is the big celebration – there are fireworks constantly, ice rinks absolutely everywhere, and everything is set to lead up to when the winter holidays begin – they start on the 30th, 31st and run until after Russian Christmas.” Similarly, for Hong, Chinese New Year is a huge festival each year: “We have the same idea of families getting together, like at Christmas, and families are supposed to be together, reunited and eating dinner together. We also give gifts to kids, but not like presents – we give cash directly in a red envelope, so it’s more efficient.”
Christmas as we know it seems like an immovable object – those that have spent any time outside of the Western World are always surprised that people elsewhere don’t take it as seriously, or even give much thought to it at all. However, it’s apparent that no matter where you go, there seems to be an annual celebration which inspires similar feelings of excitement and anticipation. In terms of commercialisation, it seems that nowhere has evaded the reach of the Hallmark generation – most societies have an equivalent excuse to light up their streets and spend money like there’s no tomorrow. But despite that, every person interviewed for this piece stressed the importance of closeness to others each of their celebrations; the coming together of family is present no matter where you are in the world – and that’s something that can unite us all.