When I was a child, every year at Christmas time my parents would pack all of us kids into the car and make the long drive into downtown Oakland for a day’s worth of shopping for gifts. My brothers and I would scour the stores looking for new things to add to our respective wish lists, and then huddle together to agree to what each of us would buy for the others. It was a great way to ensure you didn’t get something you really didn’t want. With the few dollars left in our pockets we’d then move on to buying a gift for moms. Big was always the way to go. Whether we finally decided on a cheap piece of costume jewelry or a bottle of perfume, massive always ruled the day. Too bad for moms that re-gifting had not yet been invented in those days.
But even as boys guys are not big on the shopping experience; the real reason we made that trip each year was to check out the holiday decorations. The city did a grand job of decorating the streets with lights, trees, and wreaths. And the humongous department store that was our prime destination, Capwells, turned everyone of their groundfloor windows into a Christmas tableau. There was zero merchandise on display, and it wasn’t just a matter of throwing in some fake snow, a few poinsettias, and a Santa or two. Each window’s display told a Christmas story and almost every one had at least one character that was animated. Which was still a pretty big thing in the early ‘60s.
Shopping malls killed that approach to retail holiday decorations. Those stores with a window might still add a few Christmas-related props, but the true purpose of those displays is to show off some piece of merchandise they hope will entice you into their store. Most malls throw up a tree, many add glittery neon wreaths, most decorations focus on gaily wrapped packages just so you don’t forget the purpose of your visit to the mall. It’s an obligatory nod to the season instead of the celebration it once was.
A few years ago I had the opportunity of spending several months in London; Christmas fell right in the middle of my trip. I was jazzed that I would be able to have enough time to see everything I’d always wanted to see in and around London, and even more jazzed at the picture in my mind of what the city would look like for Christmas. I was expecting a massive city-wide holiday display, the Christmas of A Christmas Carol brought to life. The reality was less festive.
Some of the stores had their window displays decorated almost to the degree of those from my childhood. The one I remember the most took the Cinderella story and adapted it to the Christmas season; one of the ugly step sisters was a transvestite decked out in black leather. Not quite a Frosty the Snowman approach, but at least they tried. There were few lights strung anywhere, and even fewer trees. But you could buy a bag of chestnuts that had just been roasted on an open fire. Tasteless things whose popularity had more to do with having something warm to keep your hands from freezing than they did as an enjoyable snack I suspect.
So it is surprising how well Bangkok does with its holiday decorations. Outside of the malls and major shopping district it’s business as usual, but then Thailand is predominately a Buddhist country. But hit Siam where all the malls stand cheek to jowl and you’d think you were in the middle of America. The displays are massive. And at night, even the street is full of lights. Much as I had with my family as a child, I now make a special trip at least once during my holiday in Bangkok to go check out the Christmas decorations.
Nights are the best time to go. All the lights add to the festive mood. MBK isn’t all that impressive, you can usually catch what they’ve done during the day and have had the full experience. The impressive efforts start at Siam Paragon. And then a stroll down to Central World and the area around Bangkok’s largest mall is well worth a visit. The locals come out for the displays too, and though they may have little knowledge of what all of the hubbub is about or why there are reindeer, fat guys in red, and snow creatures and trees all over the place, they enjoy the impressive use of lighting just as much as those of us who celebrate Christmas.
If you are lucky enough to be in Bangkok this year you can go check out the holiday displays yourself. For the rest of us, I thought I’d post a few pictures from Christmases past.
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