Christmas is on our doorstep – and on the streets of Phnom Penh. Near to Orussey market street-sellers are touting Christmas trees and lights under searing December heat.
Heng Seng, a seller at one shop, says that people have been flocking to him to buy decorations over the Christmas period and business has shot up.
Fifty per cent of his clients are Khmer while the others are foreigners, he says. “Locals buy everything in the spirit of Christmas due to the increasing presence of foreigners in the country. Many will decorate their business, restaurant or store.”
While adults adopt a business-orientated strategy to Christmas, it is their children, a more Westernised generation of young Khmer, who are beginning to adopt Christmas for their own.
“You need to understand this,” said Heng Seng at Orussey. “Kids celebrate Christmas at school. Then they bring it back to their parents’ place.”
Sin Sengky, 12, is one of many Khmer students at Sovannaphumi School who are eagerly anticipating the holiday. Years spent at British and American international schools meant that he has developed a familiarity with Christian celebrations.
“My schools shared every kind of religion and welcomed all backgrounds,” he said.
Sovannaphumi follows the Khmer curriculum but the Western calendar and plans on throwing a party on Christmas day.
“That day is a cool day. I celebrate it with my Khmer friends and we build trees out of cardboard. At school, we do activities around Christmas. It is a fun, sharing festival,” Sin said.
The French international school features a diverse pool of students consisting of Khmers and foreign children well-acquainted with Christmas.
“I have seen many Khmer families coming to our December Christmas show,” says, Magali Astier, an advisor to the teaching staff. “They like it and are receptive to it.”
Khmer children are sensitive to the spirit of Christmas and enjoy its “conviviality” said one teaching staff member. The cultural symbols of Christmas, however, “being far too distant, bear little meaning,” he said.
One thing that is certain, however, is that the consumerism of Christmas is proving infectious. Despite cultural discrepancies between Khmer families and foreigners’ strange customs, children play a pivotal role in overcoming differences and convincing parents it is the right time to buy toys, according to shop owners.
“Based on our experience, we receive in our stores an equally mixed clientele of Khmers and foreigners,” said Radeth Yim, deputy manager at Toys & Me in Phnom Penh. “Christmas is our busiest time of the year.
William Bagley, the group purchasing manager at Monument Books, a book and toy store in Phnom Penh, agrees.
“We receive a lot of Khmer clients for Christmas - but also right after Christmas. Khmer families are planning for gift-giving,” he said.
While Khmer children are keen to adopt the fun side of Christmas at school, however, the Buddhist tradition still holds strong at home, according to Chang I-Hsuan, headmaster of Symphony international music school.
“Frankly, I don’t think Khmer students celebrate Christmas at home,” says Chang I.
“Foreign kids talk about it. Khmer kids do not. This is a holiday from the Western world. It is another party for them.
“Although it has no real meaning, they totally engage. This is very obvious right now. Foreign students are away whenever there is a significant foreign holiday while a Khmer holiday draws Khmer students to temples.
"Khmer students go to international schools and stick mostly with other Khmer students but they are becoming more accepting. They can adopt Western concepts more quickly and Christmas is one of them.”