The Business of Christmas

It’s the most-monies-spent time of the year, when discounts are free-flow and the street is aglow with a light-up on show…

I’ve always considered the Orchard Road light-up to be a signature yearly Singaporean event, never mind the Singapore shopping belt has been having trouble keeping brick-and-mortar retail going since Amazon kicked off the e-Commerce revolution. For about two months, the iconic stretch of malls was a visual celebration of the things we never had as an island-state: snow, pine trees, reindeer, sleighs, and a judgy man in a red suit and white beard that makes children sit on his lap and promise them things for suspicious reasons no one has ever thought to question.

Image credit: Singapore Playground

It was an innocent time.

And then a couple of years back, something strange happened: some of the malls (not just one) started replacing their teen-sized wooden soldiers and styrofoam Rudolphs with man-sized Stormtroopers and X-Wing fighters.

Image Credit: TimeOut Singapore

The post Episode VI (or Episode III if you want to be chronologically anal) became an annual year-end event, and to the shopping centre marketers, the sight of entire sections of tall clone soldiers clad in moulded white shiny plastic armour with black accents was just so Christmassy.

So my very first reaction to the Orchard Road Christmas light-up being tied to Disney was only half- surprise. I work in marketing, so I understand how brand marketing works, and I can only imagine how much money a brand would have to pay to have their products literally plastered all over a country’s most popular street at the height of its most-visited period.

I also used to work in a law firm, so I understand how brand licensing works, and I can only imagine how much money would have to be paid to a brand to have their products literally plastered all over a country’s most popular street at the height of its most-visited period.

Marketing is a confusing business.

I can understand the position taken by the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) when they said there’s “no meaningful connection” between Christmas as a fundamentally Christian holiday and the theme of this year’s (and by the terms of the deal the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has struck, the next 2 years’) light-up. Christmas is at its core a religious celebration; Jesus of Nazareth, born to Joseph and Mary in a manger under the Christmas star, visited by three wise men from the East; the one animated Hollywood movie that depicts the Nativity story isn’t even made by Disney.

For that matter, there’s really no meaningful connection between Christmas as a fundamentally Christian holiday and snow, pine trees, reindeer, sleighs, and a judgy man in a red suit and white beard.

Here’s what connection we can make out of all of this: Christmas Day is a Christian holiday; as long as the meaning of Christmas holds true to those who hold the faith close to your hearts, nothing can take that meaningful connection away from you. It’s also a state-sanctioned, secular holiday that non-Christians like me recognise brings friends and family together to indulge in merry-making and partake in the spirit of giving.

The Christmas season, however, is not a religious anything; at least here, it is a retail event stretched over two, sometimes three months, that at one innocent time was meant to capitalise on the preparations people rush to make towards this one holiday, and now for one particular street in Singapore, is a last-ditch effort by a dying bourgeois trade to survive the digital age. It’s also an industry-sanctioned that Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) recognises brings all the shopping malls together to indulge in dressing their buildings in their Christmas best and partake in the spirit of year-end sales.

If you think about it, Orchard Road has actually made Christmas in Singapore a wonderful example of how one country celebrates the entitlement of everyone’s own opinion for the last 35 years; I do humbly ask NCCS, STB and ORBA not to let one mouse take that away from us.

Finding Freedom from Fatherhood

So liberating, when your family takes a vacation without you.

Every once or twice a year, the in-laws plan overseas trips for the family, parents, siblings, children et al. Sometimes I join in, sometimes my work schedule doesn’t allow it. But the wife and I agree that the kids should see the world every chance we can afford, every opportunity they can get.

I get a lot done when the wife and kids aren’t around. I managed to watch Bohemian Rhapsody in a theatre, finish binging on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., do some laundry, pack the house some, start writing again.

You can do a lot of things you want when your family takes a vacation without you.

When the wife and kids aren’t here, I think to myself, I can go anywhere I want, eat anything I want, meet anyone I want, go home any time I want… right after I get off work. Kind of like being single again.

Then right after I get off work, I step outside, and think about where I should go, what I should do.

These last few nights, I ended up just grabbing dinner on the way home, bingeing on Daredevil Season 3, doing some laundry, packing the house some, and writing again.

I used to like the solitude when my family traveled without me in the past, but this time round I find myself more lost than excited at the prospect of knocking off from work, checking my phone for messages from my wife about how the kids are doing, where they’ve gone for the day and how much fun they’re having. No one screaming “Daddy, Daddy!” at me when I open the door, no one to tell me what daytime shenanigans had occurred in the household, and no one to tuck into bed before I go to sleep first (this is something I always tell people when they ask me how I get my children to sleep through the night—I just go to sleep first).

And then I get a video call near midnight from the wife, and she pans the phone camera to my little daughter, who takes one look at me over the call and starts crying. “I miss you, Daddy” is all that she can muster, and then she can’t stop sobbing, can’t stop looking at the screen, and can’t stop trying to reach out to me. I’m told later that she managed to sleep after the call, but after a fair bit of pining.

My wife says it’s always good to be loved by your child like this.

I think it’s hard when your family takes a vacation without you.

And I cannot wait to have them all back home again, to have dinner together after I get off from work, take walks around the mall or push the little one around the supermarket shopping trolley, go through our nightly routines before bed, including telling them 14 times to go to bed, sit and talk to the wife while she’s half-bingeing on some documentary on dogs on Netflix with the washing machine running in the kitchen, watch the house get messier and messier because who has time to pack the house when you’re with the kids all the time, and keep writing about stuff like this.

So good to be with your family, after they come back from vacation and be with you.

The Silence of the Dads

We’re actually quite a quiet bunch, fathers.

You’d think we have lots to say, like how the mums’ WhatsApp chat groups will drop 453 messages just during lunchtime alone. We experience as many parenting issues as mums do, albeit often from quite different perspectives. And that’s what I thought when we started Daddy Matters back in 2013. “Let’s start a group,” I said. “We can all share experiences with each other,” I said. “There’ll be so many dads that want to join,” I said.

5 years and a little over 600 members later, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the fathers I’ve gotten to know through our group, the single most jarring problem that men face about fatherhood, is that we can’t talk about it.

You see, we think we can handle being dads. We think we can learn to solve these issues as husbands and fathers, and no, we don’t think we need help because it’s really our problem to solve, not anyone else’s, and besides, we signed up for this of our own accord and we have the marriage certificates and the intentionally unused condoms to prove it. We think our situation is so unique to ourselves, that we don’t think anyone else will be able to understand what we’re going through enough to help.

We think like men.

I think we’re idiots.

After the first couple of years of running Daddy Matters, I thought I might as well utilise the group the way I hoped people would use it, so I started talking in the group about my own problems as a father and a husband.

(Yes, it took me a couple of years after setting up a group to help men be dads to realise I needed help being a dad. So you can see I am uniquely qualified to call us idiots.)

I talked about how during our first child’s first year, everyone wanted to teach us how to parent. and how that was affecting our relationship with others, regardless of the good intentions.

I talked about how sometimes my fights with my wife would put me at a loss as to how to move forward.

I talked about how our kids (and us) were having such a hard time in the Singapore education system, about how the minister of education at the time was a knob, then about how we need to be more careful when talking about ministers online.

I talked about how as a parenting blogger, people have this impression that your kids are so well put together, that your wife is so loving and you’re doing such a great job as a dad, when the reality is you very often don’t have your shit together, you make just as many stupid mistakes teaching your kids the wrong things when you think it’s right, and you’ve actually lost count of how many times you almost made your wife leave you.

I talked about losing my job, at a time when I had a wife, two kids, bills, debts and a HDB flat to feed.

The first time I shared, I actually had friends message me privately, some asking if I needed help, some asking if I had gone mental. Then the dads started responding on the group thread, not only in reply to me, but also conscious that others were reading and replying to their responses as well. Not just the other founders of the group, or the friends I invited to join the group. I saw men come up saying they understand, or they’re going through the same thing, or they’ve been through the same thing, and how they got through it. For every issue I shared, I’d get more than a hearty helping of different experiences shared, and more men being helped for the same issue.

I’ve since come to learn so much from the group, both online and offline, for myself and for the other dads in the group. As unique as our families and our situations are, our experiences and perspectives really help others formulate their own solutions. And we survive to be with our families another day.

I honestly don’t know what kind of man I’d be today if not for these dads.