Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Christmas from Phnom Penh!

It is kind of strange spending Christmas in Phnom Penh, what with it pushing 30º and being a Buddhist country and all. The Cambodians are trying their best to indulge us. The supermarkets and hotel lobbies have garishly decorated Christmas trees and my favourite shop, Rajana, full of beautiful goods crafted by hill tribes and disabled Cambodians, was playing ‘Frosty the Snowman’ the other day. Oh, and the American Embassy looks like it is on fire.

A little part of me is tempted not to do anything for Christmas this year, apart from to reflect quietly on what it all means and to make my resolutions for next year. But the rest of me is a mother of two small children and one of them is very excited about Christmas! So of course we are celebrating. And since we can’t be back home in the cold, putting the stockings by the fire and making mince pies, I have decided to make the most of being here, away from the advertising and consumer frenzy that this season involves in the UK.

For me Christmas mostly means a magical day for children, thanks to my mother’s art of making everything beautiful. I do not have many childhood memories but those that I do have are of Christmases, birthdays and Easter Egg hunts. So on Saturday we played carols from King’s (College Cambridge for those non-Brits among you), put up our little tree (fake of course but a pretty good fake) and adorned it with an uncoordinated collection of decorations gathered over the years. Jemima came home from school with lots and lots of painted angels and tinselly jingle bells which are now hanging all over the house. I am even contemplating making mulled wine for a tiny party we are having, but would anyone want to drink hot wine in this heat? Hmmm, perhaps I can make it iced…

What I am loving about Christmas in Phnom Penh is the immediacy of giving. I know children in England are encouraged to make shoe boxes filled with toys that are sent to less fortunate children somewhere in the world, but they never get to see where they end up and how they are received. Somehow it feels different being here. It is easier to explain about giving and receiving at Christmas in a country where my children are seeing the ‘less fortunate’ all around them.

Jemima’s school had a party last week and invited pupils from a school which looks after children who live and work on the rubbish dump. Each host child bought a small gift for the guest children and they had party food and games. Last night we sang carols by candle light in a local garden bar and all the children brought a ‘previously loved toy’ to give away.

Don’t worry, they do also get to have their own fun and gifts without the conscience-bashing. Last Wednesday we watched Jemima take part in her first carol concert. She stood bang in the middle, right at the front and sang loudly, while I cried. Then she hid from Father Christmas for a while before finally gathering the courage to go up and get her present. Why do children find a big, round, rosy-cheeked and red-coated man, with a snowy, white beard, so frightening I wonder? We looked up in the sky all the way home for the reindeer, so it was confusing when she saw him pass us later on a cyclo.

Thanks to Jemima’s blissful ignorance of exactly how many presents her peers back in the UK are likely to receive on Christmas day, she is getting very little this year. I am making her a wig-wam for her bedroom and a stocking with a few small presents from Father Christmas. If I find myself worrying whether she’ll be happy with this, I will remind myself of her words two nights ago:

I was trying to get the girls to bed on my own and encouraging Jemima to go to sleep alone. "Would you like your music?" I asked. "Your pretty lights on?", thinking how lovely that would be. "Here's your blanket and your milk".

"No Mummy. I just want you Mummy!" Jemima replied.

Says it all really.

Anyone wanting to resist peer pressure but finding it hard, here are some ideas for the hols.

We are heading to the temples in Siem Reap with James’s sister’s family for a few days, and will probably toast Happy Christmas with a beer by the pool, or at sunrise at Angkor Wat, (no doubt with the other 10,000 tourists who have the same plan.)

As I am unlikely to post again until after the 25th, Happy Christmas wherever you are in the world! If you liked this post read this.

1 comment:

Milly said...

We just had Christmas in Vietnam, and the Christmas decorations there were spectacularly garish, wspecially in Saigon. I think the statistic is 20% Catholic, and some tiny villages we passed through had huge nativity scenes outside almost every (very modest) dwelling. It puts our Christmas treee to shame!
Happy New Year!