As an American in Jakarta, I was looking forward to hiding from my country’s distinctive way of marking holidays, especially Christmas, a celebration with so much fervor that Christmas Day itself consumes the entire month of December, and even encroaches into November.
But memories of Christmas and other holidays include time off school and work, time with (or remembering) family, trips, snow and possibly receiving lots of new stuff that was probably wanted and possibly even needed.
In its current manifestation, Christmas is intense (think Christmas carols on repeat for a month). Further, I’m finding that being in a predominately Muslim and developing county offers no amnesty from that greatest of all consumer holidays. In fact, Christmas and Jakarta’s mall culture might be the perfect pairing.
But it’s Thanksgiving that is the real jewel of American holidays. It is what a celebration should be: Feasting and family, alongside reunions with loved ones and a sense of festivity, forgiveness and renewal. You can see the same spirit in Idul Fitri, which comes with mudik (homecoming), new clothes and yes, a proper feeding.
But Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. While Christianity prescribes two major feasts on its calender, Thanksgiving — marked last Thursday — is supposed to honor the unique pilgrim/American Indian relationship. It is a glossed-over remembrance of what was, at its best, an uneasy pact (and at its worst, genocide). In the absence of religion, what exactly we’re supposed to celebrate becomes murky.
“Thanksgiving was a bunch of pagans teaching religious zealots how to farm,” Jon Stewart said on “The Daily Show” on Monday.
Of course, Christmas is a religious holiday and celebrates when Mary, Joseph, Santa and the Magi gave baby Jesus a new Xbox in that snowy desert and pine-tree covered town of Bethlehem.
And every year, Christmas continues to trespass on Thanksgiving’s turf. One cartoon showed an angry turkey holding Santa at gunpoint, saying “Wait your turn! November is MY month!”
The Friday after Thanksgiving is the traditional mass shopping day, with some eager patrons setting up small tent cities before stores open, an odd contrast to the tent cities of Occupy Wall Street (legions enthusiastically for capitalism and against it). As Stephen Colbert said on Monday’s “Colbert Report,” “Black Friday [is] the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans awake from their tryptophan induced coma to trade gluttony for greed.”
At this year’s Black Friday, there was scattered violence in stores. One woman in Los Angeles pepper-sprayed fellow patrons to get her hands on an Xbox. “America is back!” Colbert said. “We are once again spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need to give to people we don’t like.”
Entering Plaza Senayan last week, I saw it: A long, skinny and slightly garish Christmas tree standing seven meters tall in the foyer, wrapped with white lights and thick ribbons. The rest of the mall had garlands, hanging stars and all manner of Christmas shapes. I saw another tree with unrhythmic flashing lights and stacks of shiny presents at the Bellagio, while Starbucks has taken to red holiday cups with silhouettes of snow flakes.
But it makes perfect sense. What a luxury the West has bestowed on the budding (but thriving) capitalist model in Indonesia. What better place to celebrate consumerism, excess, and the commemoration of selling and buying, than in the mall culture of Jakarta? At least “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” isn’t playing on repeat in the stores.
Tim Henry is a copy editor at the Jakarta Globe.