“Do you celebrate Christmas in Singapore? Not everyone is a Christian there, right?” a younger colleague, Ilse, asked me over lunch one day in early December.
“Ssshhh, we can’t talk about it yet!” remarked Griet, another colleague who’s a little older, directing her comment towards Ilse.
The date was 3 December and as is tradition in Belgium, Sinterklaas (also known as ‘Saint Nicholas’ in the French-speaking part of Belgium) had to be celebrated first before people could start discussing Christmas. Or at least, that was how it was in the past. Nowadays, with the internet and American culture having a larger influence on the world at large, the younger generation of Belgians pay less heed to not speaking about Santa Claus before the 5th or 6th of December.
My vanilla shortbread cookies that I made to share with colleagues
Not wanting to get entangled in a generational Belgian discussion about tradition, I smiled and replied Ilse that yes, not everyone in Singapore is a Christian. And while Christmas is primarily a religious celebration and Christians on the island attend church services or mass to give special thanks, the day has also increasingly become bundled together with the year-end festivities.
Christmas in Singapore has taken on a rather commercial nature, with even non-Christians taking part in the general merry-making of the season. Our Orchard Road shopping belt is adorned with fantastic themed decorations every year, restaurants put out specially designed menus to celebrate the occasion, and of course, everyone is busy shopping for gifts to give away to family, friends, business partners, colleagues and all those they hold dear.
“What about spending time with family? Do you all have a special dinner on the 24th like we do here?” asked Ben, the token male who had joined us for lunch that day.
I laughed. Yes of course, I said – we are talking about a celebration in Singapore, so there would always be food involved! But instead of the big dinner being on the 24th, it was normally on Christmas Day itself. As a multi-ethnic society with a reputation for being ‘foodie central’, the dishes served could run the gamut from local fare with generous lashings of chilli, to less fiery Western-influenced cuisine. There really isn’t any one dish that you could say almost every family on the island would be serving at their get-together.
Given the tropical weather in Singapore, few Singaporeans dress up for dinner, preferring to lounge around at home in casual wear like shorts and T-shirts, which is different from how families would dress up for the occasion in Europe, in fine clothes. In Singapore, it’s really just a time for families to come together and enjoy each other’s company (while hoping there’ll be no dramatic outbursts).
As the festive season coincides with the year-end school holidays back home, many Singaporeans take the opportunity to get away for a little break before the school year starts anew in January. On the other hand, some overseas Singaporeans, especially if they have children of school-going age, use the break to travel back to Singapore to spend time with their extended family back home. But plane tickets usually cost a lot at this time of the year, and I know Singaporeans living overseas who would rather go back to Singapore the following month when it’s Lunar New Year, another big celebration in our country.
“So it’s like another Christmas??” asked Ben incredulously.
“Yep!” I replied. “We have at least 4 different types of main festive celebrations on the island! I’ll tell you about them another day.”
While Belgium is relatively small, every city in the country hosts a Christmas market. You could visit a different Christmas market every weekend in December and soak up a new atmosphere. Many of the market stalls feature goods from all over the world, and it often cheers me to see something from Asia being sold as it brings home that much closer. A highlight of a visit to a Christmas market is watching laughing children and adults take a spin on the ice skating rink, and having a bite of something warm and delicious. Depending on which Christmas market in Belgium you visit, the food can vary from grilled sausages and tossed sliced mushrooms, to little puffed pancakes topped with icing sugar.
Christmas lights in front of the townhall
My Christmas tree at home
Some of the lovely food that can be found in supermarkets at this time of year
I was beginning to feel a little torn between my new place of residence and Singapore, which would always be my home.
“Singapore is a long flight from here, isn’t it? Like 15-16 hours? It’s at the other end of the world!” commented Griet.
I agreed, and added that as there are no direct flights to Singapore from Belgium, I’d always have to factor in a few extra hours for the transfer as well. Going home wasn’t just a hop, skip and a jump away, and flying back to Singapore for anything less than a week was a real whirlwind, which meant having to be selective about who to meet, and carefully coordinate schedules.
Over the years, as our busyness takes over our lives and as we build new ones wherever we are, meet-ups with friends and distant family members back home have become less frequent. But when we do meet up, we mostly pick up right where we left off – like a chat that’s waiting to be continued. Continuing the conversation and staying in touch is no longer as challenging as it used to be, aided by modern-day technology. All that’s missing is the ability to touch the other in the flesh and to partake in a precious sit-down meal together.
But, fingers crossed – if I see a shooting star anytime soon, that’s exactly what I’ll be wishing for this season. That one day soon, I’ll get the chance to sit down to a meal with loved ones where we breathe in the same aroma from the dishes we will share, where we can pass the jug of lemon juice across the table, and where we can “scold” the kids running around the table to sit down and eat their meals. Catching up in person is always so much more fun. Happy holidays!