Growing up in Milwaukee I always loved Christmas time. In fact, it doesn't take much for me to daydream back to the 1960s – cold air, snow, lots of lights and decorations on people's houses and as we would drive from Fox Point to downtown (seemed like a big deal). We would get to Wisconsin Avenue and it was magical. I can still summon up the sights, sounds and smells of the season.
A visit to Gimbel's (of course my fave as it was my namesake) or Boston Store was awesome with all the decorations, the exciting toy departments and, of course, a visit with Santa. Being Jewish in no way diminished my love of the holiday. I remember one year one of the stores had a real kid-sized monorail traveling on the ceiling in the toy department. It seemed so lavish. I know my mom still has pictures of me with Santa. I especially remember a photo of one year brother Josh is crying as he is being forced to sit on the lap of the fat man in the red suit.
It was a simpler time, but of course everyone's childhood was simpler.
I'm sure the Milwaukee Christmas situation has changed a lot in the past 45 years but the one thing that still adds to the season is the cold and hopefully, snow.
Christmas in Asia is also a big deal. Interesting and even enjoyable, but in a completely different way.
Here in Singapore the mercury might dip down to about 80 degrees or a nippy 79 in late December. Humidity stays in the 70+ percent range.
Not too different from the rest of the year.
Snow is something people have only heard about or seen on TV, unless they have the means to travel many time zones away. Singapore is also a country where the population is 33 percent Buddhist, 17 percent Muslim, 10 percent Taoist and 5 percent Hindu. The fact that fewer than 20 percent are Christian does not stop the Christmas Express from revving up and moving full steam ahead.
Beginning around Nov. 1 the festive season kicks in. Christmas music becomes omnipresent and decorations start to go up. There is no Thanksgiving here so there is no "unofficial" kickoff time (in fact in nearby Philippines the season starts Oct. 1). The decorations go from tasteful to tacky. I'd say some tasteful, lots of tacky. Each of the city's areas and/or shopping malls picks out a theme and runs with it. Twelve different malls on a one-mile stretch of Singapore's best-known shopping street, Orchard Road, compete for the title of "Best-Dressed Building."
Tang's, the oldest local department store, is going with "Everything is Beautiful" and is featuring limited-edition elephants, painted by local artists and celebs (kind of like the Cows in Milwaukee years back). Newcomer mall Ion Orchard is going with "Shake up the Christmas Glitz." They have a giant walk-in tree where, once inside, you can scan a code with your phone and win a chance to get a voucher! The Centrepoint has a "Galactic Christmas with Mr. Moon." Ngee Ann City, one of the biggest high-end malls, is featuring "Season of Dazzling Delights." You can meet with Santa and Santarina (first I've ever heard of her). 313@Sommerset has "Get up to Your Heels in Snow" featuring giant walk-in snow globe.
Finally (although the list goes on and on), Tanglin Mall is the kids' favorite. Every evening they have two outdoor snow shows – the Avalanche and Snow. Parents bring their kids (in bathing suits, if they are smart) to play in a "snow storm" that yields several inches of man-made suds that look a lot like snow. Of course it isn't, and it's not cold. I think it must be the stuff they use for movies. Anyway, the kids really do love it and there is no worry about frostbite or chapped lips. Just hose 'em down when you get home.
This is just a small sample of the dozens of Christmas themes and gimmicks. The streets are packed with shoppers and there are many street performers from carolers to contortionists.
Of course, each mall or department store is looking to outdraw the next one, but there is also an over-the-top-commercial presence. There are special trees or displays brought to you by Tiffany, Ferraro Rocher, Hitachi, HTC, Sony and even Louis Vuitton. One of the biggest department stores, Takashimaya, has a co-branded theme – "Takashimaya Shines with Swaravski Elements." Want us to spend money? On their products? Hell yes!
The absolute funniest thing about the actual Christmas holiday in the eyes of a displaced Milwaukeean is Christmas Eve itself. Orchard Road starts to fill with people. By around 10 p.m. there are tens of thousands of people out. Most are armed with aerosol cans that spray white foamy stuff into the air. They spray their fake snow, take pictures on their phones or cameras, yell and scream and dress in colorful red and green. Just before midnight they do a countdown like New Year's Eve. At midnight the party kicks in and the bars fill up. In the U.S., Christmas Eve is a quiet family night. In Singapore it is a boon for restaurants, stores and bars.
Me, I will close my eyes and daydream about Wisconsin Avenue in 1965. I'll feel the chill and smell that great crisp, dry air with a hint of smoke from wood burning in the fireplace. Then, I will grab a can of fake snow, head out in my t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, hang with the people on the streets, count down at midnight and pop the top of a cold Tiger beer.
Happy holidays to my OnMilwaukee friends from Bizarro World!
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