Phnom Penh Revels in Symbols of Christmas

Phnom Penh residents have gotten into the Christmas spirit—the spirit of shopping.

“We’re making a lot more money than usual,” said Mei Kim Eng, owner of the Penh Chet Gift Shop on Kampuchea Krom Boul­evard. “I want more Cambo­dians to celebrate Christmas! It’s like our New Year in April,” she said.

Asked what Christmas is a celebration of, Mei Kim Eng defined it as “a special event for foreigners,” when they take a break from working and get together with family.

In Cambodia, the religious substance of Christmas is absent, but the external trappings—presents, Christmas trees and Santa Claus —are being enthusiastically imitated, as Western culture seeps in unaccompanied by Christian theology.

On Monday, plenty of Cam­bodians could be seen doing their last-minute Christmas shopping. “I’ll take this big bear,” said Heng Sousdey, 19, a student at Build Bright University, hoisting the enormous stuffed animal onto the shop’s counter.

Heng Sousdey continued to pace around the store, obsessed with selecting the best gifts. “I want to buy more stuff for my mom and dad,” she said.

Chen Apmara, owner of the Apmara gift shop, said her business was booming. “I have so many customers I can earn about $100 a day,” she said excitedly.

“I don’t really understand the meaning of Christmas, but I know Cambodians are starting to observe this holiday,” she said. “Especially the young people, who love to buy each other gifts.”

Several large stores in Phnom Penh’s central shopping area boasted symbols of the holiday season. A giant imitation pine tree, its base crowded with presents, stood in front of New Collection, a high-end clothing store on Sihanouk Boulevard, while a nearly life-sized sleigh, pulled by the requisite plastic reindeer, lofted Santa over the heads of Pencil supermarket shoppers.

For years, religious Christians in Western countries have complained that Christmas has become too secular. The holiday meant to commemorate the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, believed to be the son of God, has turned into a consumerist bonanza, more associated with department stores and expensive toys than with churches and reverence, these people complain.

This year, there has even been a backlash in some places against Santa—the kindly Scandinavian saint who some devout Chris­tians say is helping take the Christ out of Christmas.

But at the same time, political correctness requires that Christ­mas be shared with everybody. More and more Westerners refer to their December vacations as “the holidays” instead of Christ­mas, in a nod to multiculturalism.

So Christmas in Cambodia, where 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, is just taking the Christmas-for-everybody idea to its logical conclusion.

To almost everyone here, Christmas is a purely cultural holiday of family togetherness and quirky ritual.

Some Cambodians said they had heard about Christmas traditions from Western co-workers or from parents who had worked with Westerners, often during the Untac days. Others said they had learned about them from Holly­wood movies.

“I think Christmas is a time for family members to be together,” Heng Sousdey said. “Parents convince their children to go to bed early by telling them that Santa Claus will bring them gifts during the night—but really the parents buy the gifts for their children.”

Sar Chan Phearith, an official in the municipal Department of Public Works, was also proud of his knowledge of Christmas traditions.

When Christmas nears, he said, Westerners prepare Christ­mas trees and adorn them with different-colored lights. The bigger a family’s tree, the more prosperous and lucky that family is, he said.

“The Christmas tree symbolizes the economic success, warmth and happiness of the family,” he said. “Even though we have to work on Christmas, we are happy to get presents from our classmates and colleagues,” Sar Chan Phearith said, also comparing Christmas to Khmer New Year.

Lim Van, 22, an employee at a private transportation company, was better acquainted with the religious roots of Christmas—but had no problem claiming it for his own Buddhist faith.

“Christmas is held to honor a god who dared to die to rescue his children from sin,” he said. “So on Christmas Day, I pray to make my life happy and successful.”

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