Christmas for many Asians is all about spending time with family and friends, and the celebration comes in a variety of ways.
The Westernized version of Christmas has been copied by other countries in Asia, with Santa Claus being a big factor during the celebrations. The holiday itself is mostly a secular celebration, as only a small fraction of the population of countries in Asia are Christians. Children and parents actively participate in Christmas celebrations when they are a part of schools run by Christian missionaries.
Here are some of the ways several Asian countries celebrate the holiday:
Countries with a large Christian population such as the Philippines prepare months in advance. You might even hear Christmas music as early as October. September 1 is when the countdown to Christmas begins. The customs are a mix of Western and native Filipino traditions. On the Western side, there is Santa Claus, Christmas trees, cards and carols.
One of the most popular decorations in the Philippines is the parol, a bamboo pole or frame with a lighted star lantern on it to represent the star that guided the biblical Wise Men. Most people stay up all night on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, with Christians attending “Simbang Gabi,” or Christmas Eve mass, followed by a midnight feast called Noche Buena.
Christmas is a state holiday in this India due to British influences and mid-academic year vacations. People plant trees to celebrate “Badaa Din,” or Big Day, another name for Christmas in Northern India. The country’s smallest state, Goa, puts on a large celebration every December despite only 2% of the country claiming Christianity as a religion.
Banana or mango trees are decorated, Christians go to a midnight mass and a Western-style meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. The popular food items you might see on the table could be a roast turkey or chicken. Popular desserts in Goa that are eaten during this time include neureos, small fried pastries with dry fruit and coconut, and dodol, similar to toffee with coconuts and cashews inside. Christmas stars top many homes in other parts of India, especially in the southern city of Kerala. Father Christmas delivers presents to children from a horse and cart.
Christmas is one of the biggest four holidays in the country, with the other three being the birthday of Buddha, the New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. In years past, young people crowded Nguyen Hue avenue in Ho Chi Minh City to enjoy a light show on Christmas Eve. In Hanoi, people gather around St. Joseph Cathedral to do the same.
The minority of Vietnamese people who are Christian attend Midnight Mass at local churches. People throw confetti, take a lot of photos and admire the Christmas decorations and lights of big hotels and department stores.
Christianity is not widespread in the country, so Christmas is celebrated more in a commercial form. Japanese people eat a “Christmas cake” which is a sponge cake with whipped cream and some fruit as toppings. Instead of Santa Claus, there is “Hoteiosho,” an old man with a big sack and eyes in the back of his head, which is why children have to behave when he is around.
Gift exchanges usually take place between couples on Christmas Eve, which is more celebrated than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is seen more as a romantic day, parallel to Valentine’s Day. A popular meal to eat is fried chicken, with fast food companies such as KFC allowing people to place their orders in advance. Christmas-themed parties also lead up to the huge Shogatsu New Year celebration.
Christmas Day is celebrated as a public holiday as Christianity is a major religion in South Korea. Money is given as gifts, cards are passed around and bridges over Han River in Seoul are lit up with decorations. The capital city also boasts other light shows besides the lights on the bridges in the city center.
“Santa Haraboji,” or Grandfather Santa, is the Korean version of Santa Claus and is often seen wearing blue. Christmas cake is a popular food and is usually a sponge cake covered in cream bought from a local bakery or Baskin-Robbins.
Christmas is usually another workday, with celebrations held as a private affair between families and friends. Young couples will often celebrate the holiday more with gift exchanges between couples. A tradition that is becoming popular is the giving of apples on Christmas Eve. The word for apple in Mandarin, “píngguŏ,” sounds like the word for peace, which is similar to the translation of Christmas Eve, “Ping’an Ye,” meaning peaceful or silent evening.
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Updated Dec. 23, 2021