Christmas in the Capital

Christmas is coming to Vietnam, a festive occasion enjoyed by all. About seven percent of the population identifies as Christian: 5.5 million Catholics and about 70,000 Protestants. For them it is a religious holy day, marking the birth of Christ and the nation’s churches will install special decorations for the event. In Hanoi the main focus of activity is at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, in the old town a block from Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

Shortly after their conquest of northern Vietnam, in 1886 the French demolished the Báo Thiên Pagoda, the city’s biggest, and one of its oldest and most prestigious temples, and in its place built this neo-Gothic church, dominated by its high twin spires,. For the Christmas season a large, ornamented Christmas tree goes up in the courtyard and statues of the Nativity scene stand next to the church entrance. Worshippers throng the area for the midnight Mass Christmas Eve and those who cannot fit inside the church can watch the proceedings and listen to the sermon on a TV screen mounted outside the entrance.

For the non-Christian Vietnamese, and non-religious, Christmas is just a colorful holiday, albeit an imported one. They don’t exchange gifts like the Westerners, but enjoy going about town observing the decorations. Instead of the Christ child, it’s Santa Claus that dominates the imagery. Shops stand images of Santa Claus, sometimes playing musical instruments, next to their doorways or display models of Santa taking his gifts around on a train or truck. And youths dress up in Santa Claus suits, ride around on motorbikes or stroll through the parks. For Hanoi people, you don’t have to be Christian to enjoy Christmas. Holidays are excuses for having fun.

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