Christmas is around the corner. In the beer bars off Soi Buakhao, the CD with John Lennon, Slade and the Pogues on it has been retrieved from the upper shelf to inject a bit of party atmosphere and tinselly decorations have been looped from the fan to the corners of the ceiling. In the noodle soup shops they’re thinking about dusting off the ‘Happy New Year 2012’ banner which it always seemed too much trouble to take down after the last time. If a banner looks good at New Year, it looks good all year, that’s what Grandma says.
At Central Festival, our grandest shopping cathedral, sleigh bells have been added to the Musak and there are Christmas trees in the Central department store. Soon the assistants will put on their red Santa’s helpers’ hats but I feel their heart isn’t really in it this year. Christmas is not a Thai festival after all. They teach the kids to ‘wish you a merry Christmas’ in school, but the locals don’t really understand that to enter into the true spirit they’re supposed to spend as much money in December as in the rest of the other months combined so the Christmas motifs go largely unheeded.
It was different in previous years when European tourists came here in droves at this time of year and could be seen frantically dashing around the mall with fistfuls of carrier bags. But now they don’t come. They’re put off visiting us now by our lack of democracy, TV pictures of disturbances in Bangkok and the diminished value of their Old World currencies. We still have tourists, of course, but they’re all from China and India these days and these visitors don’t seem to take much spending money when they go on holiday. And anyway, the Chinese are saving up for their own New Year, which is their own special time for irrational spending.
No, for the true spirit of Christmas, we need to travel back in time to Europe and this year the Pobaans are throwing caution to the icy winds and making the trip. Clearly Christmas is all about family—avoiding them for eleven and a half months—and buying things that no-one needs. Before our long journey I remind myself of these seasonal verities by watching a nature programme. It might have been by that nice David Attenborough who, after a year which has seen the decimation of my erstwhile heroes, amazingly appears to be still with us.
Nature programme made by humans, watched on TV the other evening by Khun Pobaan. Troupes of Barbary macaques, the monkeys that occupy the Rock of Gibraltar, have a very hierarchical society, led by a dominant male. To progress through the hierarchy, younger males have to ingratiate themselves with the boss. We are shown a young ambitious male and his efforts to climb the greasy pole. He steals a baby from its mother, who looks dazed and confused—as so often these days an unsupported victim of crime. The young male takes the baby and gives it to the troupe leader. The leader doesn’t seem particularly thrilled by the gift though perhaps he appreciates the gesture. He gives the boy a bit of an encouraging pat to show he’s done the right thing and assure him it won’t do him any harm in his bid for promotion. The leader then loses interest in the baby so the young male returns it to its mother. Life seems to return pretty much to normal.
The commentator describes this sequence of events and adds, ‘We have no idea why young male Barbary macaques have developed the habit of stealing babies and presenting them to their leader, but in terms of social advancement, it seems to do the trick.’
Nature programme made by Barbary macaques, totally invented by Khun Pobaan. Families of humans, the naked primates who destroy our forest and think they can ingratiate themselves with us by taking our picture with their infuriating mobile phones, exhibit very seasonal behaviour. Seemingly languid for most of the year, in the last month they become agitated and nervous, the behaviour observed to become more intense as the 25th approaches, after which they return to their torpid state. Towards the climax of this behaviour they indulge in what can only be called a frenzy of transactional behaviour. They rush from shop to shop looking harrassed, exchanging money for manufactured goods that have no purpose beyond perhaps being put on a shelf and looked at. They then cover these items in paper and present them to other family members, as a ‘gift’ which is later derided and discreetly discarded.
The commentator adds, ‘To help viewers understand this behaviour, the most obvious parallel is the presentation of stolen babies to our troupe leaders, a time-honoured ceremony and essential part of our macaque culture. But while our leaders reward our young males with preferment, which is just as it should be, in the human case, despite much research into the matter, we still have no idea why humans indulge in ‘gift-giving’ behaviour which serves no purpose known to science.’
Christmas is a time for joy. Mrs Pobaan stops saying ‘It’s hot today’ for about a month and we begin to pack our cases with things that people might like, carefully checking the 23kg allowance after each addition. If you’re at the other end, see you at Christmas. If we’re leaving you behind, just carry on as normal.