Figuring out where to celebrate Christmas and get into the festive spirit in Asia isn’t that difficult; you’ll find Christmas decor and traditions stretched from communist Hanoi to the beaches of India.
Despite religious differences, the Westernised version of Christmas – along with many other traditions – has been adopted and ingrained into local culture throughout much of Asia.
In this article, we’ll have a look at the many interesting ways different Asian countries celebrate one of the biggest holidays in the world.
Bangkok does Christmas in a big way. Come December (and sometimes earlier), its downtown core comes alight with elaborate displays that wow shoppers, locals, and visitors alike. Big hotels and shopping malls do the festive season in Bangkok best, spending a huge portion of their year’s marketing budget on giant Christmas trees, gingerbread houses, reindeer barns and more. Head to the Peninsula Plaza, The Erawan Mall and Amarin Plaza, and CentralWorld Square, for some of the best displays in the city.
Christmas markets offer more opportunities to get into the holiday spirit in Bangkok. The German Christmas Market held at the Goethe-Institut has over 30 stalls to transport you to downtown Munich on Christmas Eve, while you sip on mulled Glühwein. There’s also a French fair at Queen Sirikit, and a Great Gatsby Christmas Market where you can stock up on artisanal goods at the K Village Community Centre in the four-day lead up to Christmas.
Vietnam’s Christmas season draws heavily on its French influences that remain from its time as a part of the French Empire. Head to downtown Ho Chi Minh on Christmas Eve. The Catholic Cathedral is decked out with nativity scenes and more religious holiday decorations. Cars are not allowed on the roads, which are packed with families and young people alike, getting merry and throwing confetti—a popular Christmas practice in the country. Stay for Midnight Mass to enjoy a nativity play and Christmas music.
Nowhere in Asia is as into Christmas as the Philippines. Here, the festive season kicks off on September 1, when Christmas music starts playing and locals begin decorating their houses and shop fronts. Participate in Simbang Gabi for a real taste of Filipino Christmas, where a series of masses are held over nine days in honour of the Virgin Mary. Next, fill your belly at a Noche Buena celebration, a grand family feast full of delicious dishes that are uniquely Filipino — lechon, pancit, and queso de bola.
Like in Bangkok, Singapore’s Christmas celebrations are heavily commercialised, and as such, vibrant and elaborate. Head to Gardens by the Bay for the Christmas Wonderland that starts at the end of November. Here, be prepared for festive overload, with handmade artisan light sculptures, Santa’s grotto, ice skating, Christmas music, and even “snow”.
Universal Studios puts on its own event, “A Universal Christmas,” where for an entry fee, visitors can visit a 15-metre high Christmas Tree House, become an “Elf-in-training” at Santa’s Workshop, and witness festive multimedia light shows and melodious musical performances.
Christmas in Japan is, like elsewhere in Asia, not a religious celebration. Still, the Japanese definitely get into the Christmas season. Shopping malls display large Christmas trees, and shopping streets throughout the country get decked out with festive decorations.
There are also numerous Christmas markets. Head to Hibiya Park for the Tokyo Christmas Market, sponsored by the German Embassy and the German Tourism Association, for a festive bratwurst and hot cider.
Alternatively, head to KFC for a family Christmas feast. Let us explain. A clever marketing campaign in the 70s featured a group of foreigners trying to find turkey at Christmas in Japan (which is rare to non-existent). When they couldn’t find it, they decided to head to KFC, for the next best thing to turkey–chicken. The tradition took hold in Japan and is still going strong. Nowadays, the KFC Christmas meal even includes cake and champagne.
Christmas in India is an elaborate affair. Head to any major city in India in December, and you’re sure to see Christmas markets springing up all over the city. Beyond the German Christmas Markets, there is the Kids’ Christmas carnival in Delhi – featuring India’s largest Christmas tree at 70 feet tall – workshops, games, and performances, and all kinds of stalls where you can pick up all your festive supplies.
Holiday feasts abound across the country as well. The Imperial Hotel hosts an ostentatious Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas brunch, amidst the reindeers, Christmas tree, and fake snow. For something more religious, the exquisite Vatican Embassy chapel puts on a traditional nativity scene, decks out a huge Christmas tree, and hosts Midnight Mass. After mass, there’s carol singing, a bonfire, and even fruitcake.
Goa offers a more tropical-themed Christmas, with decorated banana trees and lively beach parties to celebrate the Christmas season.
South Korea is the only country in East Asia to honour Christmas with a public holiday, due to its heavy Christian influence. Still, it’s mostly celebrated by young couples, who are encouraged to enjoy romantic dates around the holiday season with large hotel chains promoting romantic Christmas packages. Korea’s Christian population tends to skip the large family feasts, which never really caught on in the country, and opt instead for church, where they watch Christmas plays put on by the congregation’s children, attend mass, or listen to the church choir.