I rather enjoy getting out of the States and coming to Cambodia for Christmas and New Years, not only because it’s considerably warmer, but just to escape the whole commercialism-shoved-down-your-throat thing that America does so painfully well. I can only take so much of that shit. Seems like the “Christmas Push” starts sometime in July and just doesn’t let up until January. You’d think it would end after Christmas, but then there’s that week after when the shit you got as a present breaks, you take it back for a refund, and now there are new sales to take the refund money from you. It’s the “American Way”.
I find it interestingly strange that in an almost exclusively Buddhist country the concept of Christmas pops up here and there, no doubt for the exclusive benefit of foreigners. The thing that is concerning is that good old American “Commercial Consumption”, employing mass -media advertisement using that rapid-fire, never-ending, mind-numbing process is creeping into Cambodia little by little to gain its cancer-like foothold where it can to find a place to grow and thrive. The exact thing I try to escape from.
Case in point: Budweiser Beer.
In Siem Reap (as in Phnom Penh, and countless other places I’m sure) you see the plastic banners advertising Budweiser beer (originally a Czech brew now manufactured in the States which has been pawning itself off as something being German) that uses rice in its recipe.Rice? It’s right there on the label! They’d lock you up in Germany for that shit. Not for me, never touch it unless I’m near dying from thirst and even then I’d think long and hard. In November and December these banners are all over the place depicting icicles, snowmen, and of course, Santa and his reindeer. You’ve seen ’em. Aren’t they wonderful? They certainly get me into that festive, holiday mood!
A stroke of advertisement genius in a place that has never seen a snowflake, eh?
So, I turn to my Khmer brother and point at this banner with Santa who it would seems, swills Budweiser every waking moment, hence, making him “jolly”, considering the smile on his face.
“Know who that is?”, I ask.
He shrugs in a “no” kind of way and I tell him it’s Santa Claus (which, I know in other places all over the world answers to a variety of names, but I stick with the one I was told as a lad) and in short order I begin to unfold the story which does plenty to reinforce in his mind (and mine as well at least to a degree) that without a doubt, Americans are some of the most truly bat-shit crazy lunatics on the planet, probably to be avoided whenever possible. Well, all except me, of course.
So, here we go.
“Well, that’s Santa Claus and he lives up at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and about 50 elves which is another word for “midget”. They wear pointy hats and have curly shoes, not exactly arctic wear. The North Pole is fucking cold, with nothing but snow and ice and why anyone in their right mind would live there is beyond me. For that matter, Mrs. Claus must be a hell of a woman to put up with that shit. You’d never find an American woman that would live less than 10 miles from a shopping mall.”
“Anyway, Santa has a workshop. A big fucking workshop. It must be some kind of industrial complex. All year long, Santa cracks the whip and the midgets make toys for children. Kind of like the Cambodian garment workers deal over here. He probably doesn’t pay them shit either, but they get all the Budweiser they can drink for free. Come to think of it, why he uses midgets is a mystery to me, you’d think he’d get more productivity out of regular full-grown people, wouldn’t you? Nevermind. Well, all year long they crank out these toys, and since up at the North Pole where the days are six months long, that means during half the year, they’re working in the dark. How can you make something in the fucking dark? No wonder toys aren’t worth a shit and break the first time you play with ‘em. How can you build toys by fucking brail?”
I get the Khmer nod and smile at this point. I know I get the smile out of respect while at the same even though he speaks and understands English and street slang better than the average bear, there is no way he has any idea what I’m babbling on about. Undeterred, I plod on….
“So, all this toy-making stops on the 22nd or the 23rd I’m going to guess, because on December 24th, Santa puts on that red suit that you see in the picture. A big red suit, because Santa is a really fat guy who as you can see drinks a lot of Budweiser beer. That explains the red cheeks, see? Red suit, red cheeks, Santa is one color-coordinated guy! And he takes all these toys, enough for every child ON EARTH and loads them into his sled.”
Sled. An explanation is order.
“ Umm..a sled is like a car for snow, except this sled can fly. Well, not the sled so much, but see those animals with the funny horns? Those are reindeer. Reindeer. Yes, I understand they should be called snow-deer, or ice-deer, but that’s just how it goes. “
“These reindeer that Santa has for his sled can FLY!!!” Isn’t that cool? At this point I’m extending my arms like a 747 and doing a little dance in a circle. Keep in mind I’m saying this to someone who has never been on an airplane in his life. My Khmer brother is now looking at me like I have a third eye.
“They fly? Like bird in sky?”
“Yup. And see the one out front? With the red nose? Well, he’s the boss of the reindeer and his name is Rudolph. Roo-dol-phffff. He’s Santa’s favorite and I don’t know for sure but I think both he and Santa drink Budweiser beer all day long at the North Pole because it’s so fucking cold up there. I know I would. Maybe not Budweiser, because I hate that shit, but something alcoholic. That explains why they both have big red noses.”
Well, that seems logical, eh? We proceed.
“Santa loves his reindeer very much, and he gave each of them a name. The four right behind Rudolph are named…umm, let’s see…“Hops”, “Malt”, “Barley” and “Pop-Top”. I’m getting old and it’s too hard to remember all their names but I think one is named “Heineken” and another is called “Guinness”. Look it up on Google.”
“Notice how Santa has the big smile? That’s because he’s “jolly”, which means “happy”. He says, “Ho-ho-ho mui teit!!” a lot.”
My audience is now transfixed, mouth agape staring up at the banner which has now become a truly mystifying image.
“Now, on December 24th, Santa loads all the toys into the sled and feeds lots of Budweiser beer to all the reindeer and off they go. Maybe Santa takes a couple of kegs along to refuel the reindeer, not sure. Anyway, Santa and the reindeer take off and fly ALL OVER THE WORLD and deliver toys to children EVERYWHERE. Isn’t that amazing? Can you believe it? I can’t get from Siem Reap to Seattle in 24 hours, but Santa with Rudolph and the other reindeer all boozed up on Budweiser can get to every single goddamn house in the WORLD in the same amount of time because you can bet your ass that Santa doesn’t have a fucking 13 hour layover in Seoul.”
“Santa never come to my house?” is the reply in that question/statement Khmer kind of way.
“Well, see, there’s a couple of things about that. First, Santa only comes to your house if you’ve been good. He knows when you are sleeping and he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. Santa keeps track, he has a list and he checks it twice. Well, actually two. One is if you’ve been bad, and one if you’ve been good. I think that’s how he cuts down deliveries to save some time. But, remember when the cop pulled you over for not wearing a helmet and grabbed the keys until you gave him some money? Remember how you punched him the face, knocked him to the ground and kicked him? Well, I think that put you on the wrong list. And if Santa has never come to your house, you’ve been pulling a lot of shit for quite some time it seems.”
“Fuck policeman. All he want is bribe.”
“Well, I understand but Santa doesn’t have time to go through details. You’re either bad or good. It’s that simple”.
I can see the gears turning.
“Prime Minister never see Santa too?”
“Never has, never will. He’s on the wrong list.”
Ah, there’s that big Khmer smile I so dearly love.
“But the other thing is that you’re supposed to do is leave milk and cookies for Santa when he comes to your house. If you don’t, Santa might not come next year. For an old man, Santa has a hell of a memory.”
“So…Santa need bribe, too? Like policeman?”
Hmmm. Yeah, you got a point, there. Moving on…
“So…Santa’s flying with the reindeer, the toys, and the Budweiser, right? He lands on the roof of everyone’s house, parks, and he gets into the house by going down the chimney.”
“Yeah. Lots of houses have a chimney, so they can make fire in the house and the smoke has a place to go.”
Startled, he shouts, “MAKE FIRE IN HOUSE?”
“No, no…the fire is made in a special place where it stays but the chimney is a tube that lets the smoke go outside.”
“Tube very big.”
“Well, not real big…(I fashion my arms into a circle and let my fingertips meet)…it’s about like this.
I can see the gears are turning again as my Khmer brother looks up at Santa on the Budweiser banner.
“Santa bigger than that. Why not Santa park outside house on ground and come in through door?”
My Khmer brother is nobody’s fool.
“Well, that’s a good question and maybe he does in some places, but the United States sure as hell isn’t one of them. Santa would get his fucking head blown off in America if he came in someone’s front door in the middle of the night.”
Again, startled, he exclaims, “YOU SHOOT SANTA?”
“Well, no…not me personally, but there’s a lot of assholes in the States with guns that sure as hell would. And after Santa, the reindeer would be next. Those reindeer taste pretty good. I think that’s the reason why in the States he comes down the chimney. He knows Americans are fucking nuts.”
He’s nodding in agreement as he’s beginning to see the light.
“Now, in the house is a tree…”
“Tree grow in house?”
“Well, no. We cut the tree down in the forest and bring it into the house.”
“Do police know?”
“Sure, everyone does it.”
“And not go to jail?”
“Naw…actually, most people pay someone else to cut down the tree.”
“So tree die?”
“Yes, the tree die. It’s a custom we have. We kill trees to celebrate the birth of Christ.”
There’s that look again.
“Nevermind. Look, Santa comes down the chimney with the toys and he hangs out a bit to eat the milk and cookies. Sometimes the father of the house might leave him a shot of whisky because he knows Santa has a long way to go and its fucking cold at 35,000 feet. So after the cookies, milk and whisky are gone, Santa puts the toys under the tree and goes back up the chimney, gets in the sled, and off they go to the next house. You always know that Santa has been to your house when you get up in the morning of Christmas and the milk, cookies and whisky is gone and there are toys under the tree”.
“Santa look old. How old Santa?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Santa is an old guy and probably getting sick of this stuff. Someday Santa is just going to just use Fed Ex, eat the reindeer, fire the midgets and buy a bar on Pub Street where he can sell Budweiser and drink for free.”
There you have it. I’m explaining the whole concept of Santa Claus to my Khmer brother as he’s looking up at the Budweiser banner in wide-eyed wonder and as I go through the mythical tale, the irony of it all certainly isn’t lost on me. Icicles…snowmen…reindeer…fat man in a red suit…all to sell beer in a place where the temperature rarely gets below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.