Finding Christmas cheer in Indonesia at — where else? — the mall

(Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

These snowmen and their little penguin buddies are holding up well in Palembang, considering it still regularly tops 90 degrees on most days. (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

Snowmen greeted me when I entered the mall today. It’s the start of December, and Christmas has arrived in Palembang.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised, even though Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world.  I am, after all, in Palembang,  one of Indonesia’s biggest cities. Though it is far from a tourist destination (just check Lonely Planet’s scathing review), Palembang is rapidly becoming a modern, cosmopolitan urban center. We don’t have a Starbucks yet, but a mammoth Dunkin’ Donuts did open up a couple months ago. KFCs litter the city’s main arteries, and two weeks ago my students couldn’t get to the cinema fast enough to watch the new Twilight movie.

Yes, American consumerism has reached Palembang, and many other parts of Indonesia. But Christmas-themed consumerism? I didn’t expect this outside of Jakarta.

So there I stood, gawking at the snowmen cradling “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” signs. Behind them, Christmas trees festooned the lobby. I pulled out my iPad and discretely tried to take a photo. This must be what Indonesians feel like when they spot a white person – bule!, bule! – walking around town, I thought. A rare spectacle.

Baristas at a coffee joint in Palembang's ritziest mall sport  Santa hats for the holiday season. And are those stockings hanging from the counter behind them? (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

Baristas at a coffee joint in Palembang’s ritziest mall sport Santa hats for the holiday season. And are those stockings hanging from the counter behind them? (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

Some shoppers noticed me and asked if I wanted them to take my photo with the snowmen. I instinctively thought they wanted a photo with me, as most Indonesians love taking pictures and love taking pictures even more with a bule. When I offered my usual response – Boleh. You may. – they looked confused. They didn’t want to take a photo with me. They just thought I’d want a photo with the Christmas snowmen, and were offering assistance. Maybe they knew it’d make for a good email home to the parents.

After catching up with the snowmen, I rounded a corner and headed toward my favorite wi-fi-enabled coffee spot. Before ordering, I noticed the employees at the rival coffee shop across the walkway sporting bright red Santa hats. The snowmen had emboldened me, so I decided to snap their photo, too. The baristas caught me – what a role reversal! – and asked if I wanted to take one with them. I obliged.

Having taken their photo, I couldn’t go back to the rival watering hole. I sat down and looked at the menu. My waitress eagerly pointed to a new insert boasting two seasonal “magical Christmas” drinks. I settled on the snowfall, a holiday appropriate blend of coffee, caramel, cream and marshmallows.

After indulging in Santa’s wonderland, I moseyed over to the grocery store.

Turns out Christmas season onslaught arrives too early even on the equator. For once, though, I didn’t mind the sights and sounds of the holiday season. They helped me create an impromptu Christmas card and discover a new favorite coffee spot.

About the author: Dustin Volz is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Palembang, South Sumatra. He is editor in chief of Indonesiaful and a publisher of Downtown Devil, a hyper-local news publication covering the downtown Phoenix community. Volz graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and history and a master’s degree in mass communication. Contact him at

One thought on “Finding Christmas cheer in Indonesia at — where else? — the mall

  1. Pingback: American Holidays in Indonesia: A Review of 2015 |

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