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Taiwan's Santa bus drivers

For Taiwan businesses, Christmas offers an excuse for marketing gimmicks galore.

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.
Taiwan's Santa bus drivers.
(Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

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."