TAIPEI, Taiwan — Hop on a bus in Taiwan these days, and you might find Santa Claus behind the wheel.
As a pre-Christmas gimmick, one bus company has persuaded most of its 700 drivers to don Santa suits for two weeks.
"We do this to give our customers some Christmas atmosphere," said Luo Chang-rong, a driver who said dressing up was voluntary and he didn't mind doing it.
The drivers only wear the suits, though. None I met had mastered the basic "Ho ho ho" or otherwise attempted to play the part.
|Taiwan's Santa bus drivers.
That's a reflection of Taiwan's superficial take on the meaning of Christmas. Most Taiwanese practice a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and folk customs; less than 5 percent are Christian. The big holidays here follow the lunar calendar. The most important is Chinese New Year, when businesses shut down for a few days and families reunite (it falls on Feb. 14 next year.)
Christmas, by contrast, is an obligation-free occasion for fun and good old-fashioned commercial promotion. For younger Taiwanese, especially, Christmas Eve has become a night to party with friends, or a date night.
For Taiwan businesses, it's an excuse for marketing gimmicks galore.
Come November, shops start setting up Christmas trees and tinsel, and getting employees to don Santa hats. Taiwan's karaoke parlors and "love motels" offer Christmas discounts, and add in special holiday meals and giveaways.
So it is with the Capital Bus Company. About seven or eight years ago — no one's sure exactly which — the company hit upon the "driving Santas" plan.
The first year only half the drivers were willing to dress up, said Ankang Station Captain Ting Chin-shih, 53, during a recent visit.
Some of the older, more traditional drivers thought it would bring bad luck. Driving while wearing blood-colored clothing from head to toe was inviting a crash, they worried. But then peer pressure ran its course, said Ting.
"At first, there were some drivers who couldn't accept it," he said. "The company said, 'OK, you don't have to do it.' But then they saw the other drivers wearing the outfits and saw it was fun. Now, almost all the drivers dress up."
Another clever ruse helped. The company gave drivers bags of candy to give children, but only if the drivers wore the full suit. Some passengers who were denied their expected hand-out complained, further pressuring the party-poopers.
Ting said all but one of the 51 drivers at his station dressed up this year. The abstainer declined because he's mourning his wife's recent death and thought it inappropriate to dress up in a bright red suit.
As Ting brought over tea, bus drivers lounged around in their Santa suits — watching TV, cracking jokes, having a quick shave. A few Santa-clad staffers did paperwork at one end of the room as a Chinese-language version of "Jingle Bells" filled the room.
In the parking lot outside, Santas cleaned buses and maneuvered their buses in and out of tightly packed rows.
Ting said that as a kid he only had fuzzy impressions of Santa Claus and Christmas. In those days he and his friends believed Santa only gave presents to American and European children. Logistical problems ruled out a trip to Taiwan.
"If he wanted to come to Taiwan, there's a huge ocean to cross — it's too much of a bother," said Ting.
Nowadays, as Taiwan has opened more to outside influence, Christmas has steadily infiltrated. "Before, we thought of it it as a foreigners' festival," said Ting. "But little by little, it's become a Taiwanese festival, too."
The Santa-clad driver who drove me to Ankang Station said he liked the suit because it kept him warm. Another driver, Hawk Lin, sported a Tibetan necklace over his Santa suit.
Driver Tommy Yeh had looked up English phrases on the internet before my visit, written them down and practiced them. The phrases included, "Welcome to Rovaniemi," (Santa Claus' supposed home in Finland, which was news to me), "Where are my reindeer?" and "This bus has already finished disinfecting. Don't worry about H1N1."
Explaining the latter phrase, Yeh said, "We were very nervous — we thought you would ask about H1N1."
Yeh's bus boasted a Christmas tree and tinsel decorations. "We wanted to put up Christmas lights too, but the company wouldn't go for it — they thought it would take to much battery power," said Yeh, as he drove me back to the metro station.
Asked what he thought of wearing the Santa suit, Yeh said, "It can be uncomfortable, especially when you have to go to the bathroom," and broke out in giggles.
But he's willing to dress up to give his younger passengers a kick. "It's just for fun — the kids come on the bus and are so happy to see Santa Claus and take the candy," said Yeh. "For them it's a beautiful dream."