It is that time of year again when the Christmas decorations go up and the shopping malls start to play Christmas songs such as Jingle Bells and Santa’s Coming to Town. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that we are living in a Buddhist country when we see a large and brightly lit Christmas tree outside Central World Plaza and Father Christmas, though a rather thin version, on the Sky Train. Although less than 4% of the people in Thailand are Christians, the Thai people as a whole don’t need much excuse to have a party and to put up some tacky decorations. As well as Christmas, they also celebrate Halloween and Valentine’s Day in Thailand.
Nong Grace has been badgering me for several months to bring out the Christmas Tree and to put up the decorations. Last year was her first Christmas, and now that she is five, she wanted to celebrate in a more “proper” manner. Like any other Thai child, she has seen Christmas being celebrated in America and Europe on the television and wanted to experience some of that fun. We even went to Snow Town in Dream World the other month so that she could play in the snow much the same as her favourite cartoon characters. Of course, in Thailand, we won’t be celebrating a white Christmas, but the weather has already started to drop to a chilly 25 Celsius and children are now going to school wearing jackets and pullovers.
The Christmas decorations in Thailand usually go up towards the end of November. You will mainly see them at the large shopping malls. A number of hotels and shopping malls in Bangkok will compete to have the largest or the brightest lit Christmas tree. You can also buy your own plastic tree and tacky decorations at the hypermarkets such as Tesco Lotus, Carefour and Big C. In my household, the tree will stay up for the 12 days after Christmas day. However, many Thais keep them up for much longer. For them, Christmas and New Year is one long event that has been merged into one celebration. Then some will keep it up for the Chinese new year at the end of January or early February. Then of course, they might just keep celebrating until the traditional Thai new year of Songkran in early April. The Thais love celebrating.
Not every Thai family will celebrate Christmas of course. And, of course, they won’t celebrate it by going to Church or singing carols around the tree. However, families with young children sometimes give their kids a small present in the morning and maybe have a special meal in the evening after school. Though, this will probably be rice and a Thai curry rather than a turkey, roasted potatoes and a Christmas pudding. They may even take their children to see the Christmas trees and decorations in Bangkok. Thai people like taking pictures of each other in front of the tree and any other bright decorations they can find.
As Christians in Thailand are a minority, you will find that Christmas day is often a normal working day. It was a bit strange, when I first came to Thailand, when I found out that I had to go to work on Christmas Day. However at my school, like many schools around Thailand, they had special activities during morning assembly. When I arrived at school in the morning, I was greeted by two of the fattest students that they could find, dressed up as Santa Claus. Many of the Kindergarten girls were also dressed up as little angels and fairies and were giving out candy to the students as they arrived. In the center of the playground there was a large Christmas tree that was surrounded by coloufully wrapped presents. During assembly, students from the senior grades danced around the tree and sang Christmas carols. They even put on a small play telling the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of the baby boy Jesus.
Some people have asked me whether it really feels like Christmas when I am in Thailand. It is true we have all the same decorations up. We probably even have the same songs being played in the malls. You can even go to a church for a Christmas service and then to a Bangkok hotel later for a Christmas dinner. And as it is winter for us, it does feel a bit chilly. However, for many of us Westerners, Christmas is more about spending time with families and relations that you haven’t seen for a long time. For me, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas unless I fly back to England and spend the Christmas holidays there. Maybe one day soon, while Nong Grace is still young, I can take her to England to experience a real Christmas.