It was a week before the end of the millennium: Christmas Eve in Singapore. And so it came to pass that a child with a tea towel on his head knocked on our door to our apartment and asked if there was room for him and his wife, Mary.
“For we have come a long way, and we are very tired,” he added.
My husband, playing the innkeeper, said, “Sure, there’s plenty of room! Come on in!” The child Joseph snorted and stamped his foot. “You’re doing it wrong! That’s not how the story goes!”
Out on Orchard Road, the main shopping drag, the ornamentation was beautiful and the sales deeply discounted. Santa dressed in north pole furs despite the heat, and took pictures with the children. Carol singers serenaded shoppers with songs about snowmen and silver bells.
I still have a children’s book, A Singapore Christmas.* It is all about the problems of weather and traffic to a transglobal traveler like Santa in the tropical city state.
“Then they heard Santa say, ‘Thank goodness
there are no chimneys in Singapore.
All that sliding makes my bottom sore.
I much prefer to use the window,
the balcony or the front door.’”
The government of Singapore considered that the island had always been a peaceful place, where a diversity of cultures lived side by side with relative ease. The island separated from the rest of Malaysia after race riots erupted in the 1960s. Alone, it was felt, the little city-state could continue to live in its own climate of tolerance and mutual celebration. Every major holiday was marked on its calendar. Each ethnic and cultural group exercises its heritage on the streets of the city when their festival comes around. So in the early spring, the decorations would change from red and green to red and gold for the Chinese New Year. Taking the children to dress up as dragons; wandering through Little India to take in the Diwali lights; even watching the procession of Thaipusam devotees; we were shameless cultural tourists.
Becoming cultural tourists to Christmas was an interesting experience. In a way, a secular, Singapore Christmas was the universal holiday; a bridge between cultures. Stripped of its religious roots, in its public expressions it was unthreatening, generous, loud, and colorful. As English had become the lingua franca of the four official languages of the nation, so Christmas became a holiday in which anyone could participate. Religious expression became a private exercise, confined to the churches and the private homes of our neighbors; there were a few Chinese and Korean house churches in our condominium tower block.
As I remember it, our closest neighbors in the condo were professed atheists; yet they missed the casual, cultural Christianity of Christmas in our homeland. We had moved to Singapore from England, where the schools told Bible stories and the local vicar would give an assembly about the baby Jesus, even if none of the families ever darkened the door of a church. Without Jesus, even for the self-confessed cynic, the season lacked a center, a heart. We were concerned that our children should know the stories that came with Christmas, that made it important in our calendar, in our culture.
For once, my tendency to religion was a sought-after gift. I was the only one we knew who packed a Bible, a guidebook to our cultural tourism.
So it came to pass that on Christmas Eve, a Christian and a few agnostic and atheist adults and their children put on their very own Christmas Pageant in our living room. The innkeeper was made to say his lines properly, and our little angels stumbled through the story of the birth of the Messiah. We sang Christmas carols that did not shy away from the name of the Christ. And a little child led us.
*A Singapore Christmas, by David Seow, illustrated by Enrico Sallustio (The Educational Publishing House Pte Ltd, Singapore, 1998)
Rosalind Hughes is a former UK resident now happily settled in the Cleveland, OH area where she is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid. Rosalind is a graduate of Keble College of Oxford University and Bexley Hall Seminary. Apart from general parish duties and the Episcopal Cafe, she enjoys leading Prayer Writing retreats, writing poetry, knitting, and playing with cats.