My wife likes to tell the story of when she discovered Santa Claus as a child. Excited by his midnight journey around the world, she grabbed a sock out of her drawer, and hung it from her bed post. Her family told her that Santa only brought gifts to white kids. Undeterred she put her faith in the Western hype machine and believed she’d wake to find a gift in her sock. Really, how hard would it have been to throw an orange and a couple of nuts in her sock? But, striking a blow for Buddhist values, her family let the sock go empty. It must have devastated young Venus, because now every Christmas I get to hear this parable. Partially because of this, my wife is a real sucker for anything Christmassy. In our teensy little apartment we have more glitzy Christmas decorations than were used in my whole house as a child. It gets pretty campy here.
My wife isn’t unique. It seems that over the last 20 years, the Taiwanese, prompted by the retail industry, have picked up on the commercial elements of Christmas. However, Christmas is still an alien import and not well understood. My wife’s friends sometimes ask me to play the role of Westerner in captivity during this season by having a Christmas party so they, and their children, can observe me celebrating Christmas in my natural habitat. It’s all very awkward, and not at all representative of a genuine Western Christmas.
Oddly, Taiwan does actually have its own Christmas custom, though as you might expect Taiwan’s Christmas tradition is a bit lacking in, well, tradition. During my first trip to Taiwan, thirty-one years ago, I got to observe Taiwan’s native Christmas observances first-hand. The writer of the Republic of China’s calendar (民國紀元) was a Christian and wanted Christmas to be a holiday, but he needed a justification. He decided to call December 25th Constitution Day and make it a holiday. It was one of those made up holidays, like Family Day, Children’s Day, Victoria Day, etc. For most holidays in Taiwan, there are endless traditional observances and family obligations, but for Constitution Day the Taiwanese found themselves with a day off work and not much to do. At the time Taiwan’s vibrant love motel industry was just beginning to take off and some marketing genius had the idea that young lovers should “celebrate Christmas” by going to a motel. Of all the Christmas traditions from all around the world, this is my favorite: nothing says Christmas like miniature soaps and complimentary lube. By the time I arrived in Taiwan it was a thing. I think this tradition has become less prevalent, but Christmas is still regarded as a romantic time.