SIEM REAP, Cambodia?A Filipino spending Christmas in a predominantly Buddhist country is a curious cultural experience. Walking around town, I realize there is little here to indicate that the two billion-odd Christians throughout the world are celebrating what is probably their most important holiday.
?When I first got here, people had no idea what Christmas was,? said Ilonggo artist Loven Ramos, who moved to Siem Reap five years ago. ?Once, I went to a dance club with my friends and we found ourselves dancing to ?Jingle Bells??in the middle of February.?
Shopping for Christmas decor, he added, was a nearly impossible feat. The Christmas tree now towering over his living room had to be shipped from Vietnam two years ago.
That the Khmer people aren?t agog over Christmas doesn?t come as a shock. Not only is Cambodia a Buddhist nation; the country?s pride, the Angkor temple complex, is said to be the world?s largest religious structure, built initially as a Hindu site and later converted to Buddhist use. It?s a long way from Bethlehem.
However, Ramos said, Christmas is making its way to Cambodia little by little.
While Cambodia probably wouldn?t get a papal visit anytime soon, there is no question that the Kingdom of Wonder is slowly getting into the Christmas spirit.
In a few unexpected places around town, Christmas trees have sprung up. Flickering lights of red and green illuminate areas within a few feet of Buddhist shrines.
On Pub Street, the center of nightlife in Siem Reap, every other restaurant offers a Christmas set menu. Not too far away, a band of landmine victims can be heard playing ?Frosty the Snowman? and other Christmas classics, on top of its usual repertoire of Khmer traditional music.
Two weeks ago, a luxury hotel here held what its employees called ?the first ever Christmas tree lighting in Cambodia,? with a choir of children from a local orphanage singing Yuletide carols.
It?s all inevitable, with the growing Western presence in the country. One million (mostly Western) tourists travel to Cambodia each year to see Angkor Wat, and they typically come in droves around the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Cambodia also hosts a large community of expatriates working at diplomatic missions and humanitarian groups. And then there are the missionaries serving in religious and charitable organizations throughout the country.
Cashing in on the holiday
For the Cambodians, of course, December 25 isn?t a day to celebrate the birth of Christ. It?s more like a spending season, when the most merriment is had by tourist businesses cashing in on the holiday.
But then, one could argue that it?s not all that different in the Philippines and the rest of the Christian world. Don Protasio, a Filipino fashion designer working as an art curator for the stylish Hotel de la Paix, recalled memories of holiday shopping in the Philippines with a tinge of exasperation.
?Back home, Christmas is so commercial,? said Protasio, who is spending his third Christmas in Siem Reap. ?The act of gift-giving has little purity left about it. You?re compelled to give something just because it?s the holidays. Here, it?s still pretty easy to get away from all that.?
But Protasio is no Scrooge; he simply prefers to play Santa on his own terms. ?When I go home, I bring gifts for the whole family. Then I get to feel like Christmas,? he said.
Always home for Christmas
For teacher Jessie-Marie Morcoso, nothing beats being with family on Christmas Day. Since moving here in 2005, she has gone home every year to spend the holidays.
She left for the Philippines on a Sunday, much to the regret of her band mates. Morcoso sings in a locally popular band with three European expats, and the band had to turn down gigs around the holidays because of Morcoso?s absence.
?I?ve already sent two (cardboard cargo) boxes home for gifts,? Morcoso said the day before she left. The gifts, she said, were for her ?immediate family??by which she meant her parents, siblings, nieces, nephews?and all other relatives living within her family?s five-house compound in Legazpi City.
Lucky are the ones like the artist lover Ramos who don?t have to choose between work and family every holiday season.
Two years after Ramos came to work as an in-house graphic designer for a hotel here, his wife Faith joined him. Today, Ramos runs an art gallery-cum-boutique and collaborates on a gamut of freelance fashion and interior design projects with Protasio. Faith works as a manager at Amansara, one of the most luxurious resorts in Siem Reap.
The couple?s son, Freedom, was born here. Although the four-year-old attends school in the Philippines, Cambodia is now pretty much home for the whole family.
However, the family Christmas traditions remain intact, except for a few tweaks. Being the only kid in the household, Freedom can expect to be at the center of the celebration. His first task for the holidays was to put the star on top of the Christmas tree. He didn?t need to worry about Santa skipping the out-of-the-way trip to Cambodia. In addition to his parents, his lola and two aunts are in town this year to make sure he gets his share of aguinaldo.
What makes Christmas
Noche Buena was a sort of open-house party, with friends of different nationalities dropping in for a home-cooked feast. Although the menu defied traditions (the hosts are pesco-vegetarians and some of the guests are on a gluten-free diet), Ramos said the essence of the gathering couldn?t be more Filipino: family togetherness.
?In the Philippines, you see, taste, even breathe Christmas,? Ramos said. ?But I wouldn?t really feel that holiday spirit if I wasn?t with my family and friends. At the end of the day, it?s the people you?re with that makes Christmas, Christmas.?