Christmas in Hong Kong

Christmas in Hong Kong is the time for the tasteless, the season for the syrupy, the holiday for the horrific -- if we're talking about lights and decorations, that is. There may be another city that can equal Hong Kong in the banality of its Christmas decorations, but it's sure to fall short in terms of sheer volume. For my money, this year's most nauseating display of Hong Kong-style Christmas-hijacking was the Hello Kitty monstrosity infecting the New World Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, but you certainly are welcome to choose your own worst nightmare.
And yet I welcome this annual plunge into visual purgatory -- it's better than some of the alternatives.

I think the greatest danger to the real celebration of Christmas is not its misinterpretation and exploitation by corporate marketing teams, it's that Christmas can become too tame -- a domesticated, heartwarming story wrapped up neatly in a cozy stable. This scene is represented in countless crèches and paintings and sculptures. I grew up with it: a dreamy Mary; a sensitive Joseph, bemused but caring; pastel-robed shepherds; spotless cows and donkeys looking on with wide brown eyes.

The problem was, I also grew up farming country. I spent several of my early Christmases on my grandparents' farm. I knew that real farm animals shat and pissed all over the place, that real farmyards were churned-up seas of mud and filth, and that it all smelled pretty bad, even when the freezing temperatures took the edge off it. Maybe, I reasoned, they had more clean straw around to cover things up when Jesus was born.

But of course it was in a real stable that Jesus came into our world, one with full complements of excrement and odor. Mary and Joseph were likely terrified -- the circumstances of their child's birth were already suspicious, and then the need to travel for the census so close to Mary's confinement, and then, on top of that, no room at the inn . . . .

Yet there is revealed the jewel of that scandalous Incarnation: amid the blood and chaos and fear comes the King, the Savior, the hope for us all.

There's a perfectly hilarious scene in one of my favorite movies, Monty Python's 'Search for the Holy Grail'. It's medieval times, and a questing band of knights comes upon a castle, where peasants are digging up the surrounding fields. A knight asks one of these mucky laborers how he can find and recognize the king. The peasant replies 'He's the one not all covered in sh-t!'

For us Christians, it's no insult to say that our King is the one who has been covered in all the sh-t of this world. He's become one of us indeed, and the world has seen no greater revolution than the one born in that Bethlehem stable.

So if Hong Kong's cartoonish, commercialized festivities distract us from the truth of Christmas, at least they leave the question open: what was it -- and is it -- really all about? That's better than trying to tell us it was simply a charming made-for-TV special arriving just in time for the holidays.