Asian Ethnology 82-1 | article Strange Company Victor Hugo, the Saigon Flag, and Santa Claus on Vietnamese Altars

Janet Alison Hoskins

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Caodaism spirit mediums Vietnamese religions flag symbolism French colonialism

Vietnamese popular religion is inclusive and syncretistic and can incorporate a number of external elements into its expanding pantheon. This article explores the image of Victor Hugo in a mural in Caodai temples, the Saigon flag on ancestral altars, and a Santa Claus doll on “Way of the Mother Goddesses” (Đạo Mẫu) home temple altars. Each of these elements is recast onto a Vietnamese religious canvas and given new meaning in its new context, in ways that signal the process of decolonization, a lost country now perceived as an ancestor, and the “American spirit of children” who may offer blessings of prosperity. Just as each image models a religious aspiration, so it also mirrors an experience of loss and disconnection. The home altar is itself the canvas of syncretism, where different historical influences are put on display, and through this display brought into relationships with each other.