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4 Countries to Spend Your Christmas in Asia

December 18, 2013

Beyond its commercial value, Christianity’s holiest of holy days is well feted in a spirit sometimes religious and sometimes distilled. By Jim Algie

Published on Dec 18, 2013

Christmas may be a shopping occasion in much of Asia, but the giving of gifts still carries a deeper message of Christian charity. Photo by Jim Algie. 

When people in the West talk about Christmas becoming an overly commercial, consumerist free-for-all, and losing its true significance, they could point to Southeast Asia as Exhibit A. 

By early November, the region’s malls of Asia are dressed up in Christmas drag with towering trees out in front. The trees and facades sparkle with a full spectrum of lights and images of sleigh-riding Santa pulled by his reindeer across a Vegas-bright background.

Inside the malls, shops, and even some supermarkets, Christmas carols like “Joy to the World” and other seasonal songs such as “Frosty the Snowman” play on an endless repeat. (Beware the disco version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”; your ears will never forgive you.) Some malls even have their own personal Santas, complete with pillow-stuffed belly, for photo ops with kids. 

These seasonal themes play out in all sorts of bars and restaurants with papier-mâché snowmen, waitresses wearing Santa caps and posters of wintry scenes a world away from the tropics.  

For all that razzmatazz, it’s hard to have a white Christmas when it’s 25 Celsius, the sun is on high beam, all the foliage is green, and there’s not a pine tree or ski hill in sight.

But in some Christian-dominated countries like the Philippines and, less so in South Korea, the day of Christ’s birth in a manger in Bethlehem, unfolds with its age-old fervor and rapture intact.

Elsewhere in Asia, you may have to look a little harder to see the spirit through the forest of glittering trees.

The parol symbolizes the star that led the magi to the manger where Christ was born. Photo by Maria Guerrez. 


Asia’s most Catholic country venerates the birth of the Messiah with true gusto in what is one of the longest such celebrations. Christmas begins in earnest on December 16 with a 4am Catholic mass, also known as the “mass of the rooster,” and does not end until the Feast of the Kings on January 6. 

From the 16th,  the mass will be repeated every morning until the grandiose finale on Christmas Eve. Among Filipinos, the prevailing belief is that if you attend all nine masses, God will grant you a wish.

After the midnight mass, families congregate to enjoy a feast of seasonal favorites like ham, cheese and suckling pig.     
Besides the Christmas tree, the most prevalent symbol of the season – all across the archipelago – is the parol. These lanterns, often made in the shape of a star to symbolize the guiding light that brought the three wise men to find the infant Jesus, are radiant creations, sometimes made of natural materials such as cornhusks.

Throughout the Yuletide season, children go caroling from door to door to earn some pocket money. Adults will undertake such missions of musical mercy to help the poor.

This year, as the Philippines recovers from one of the most catastrophic typhoons in recorded history, we urge our readers to take up this spirit of giving. After all, this is what Christmas is really all about. To give and forgive, to love and share – that is the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

(Please click here for a rundown on the typhoon and a list of worthy charities.)      

One of Santa’s helpers at the information desk at the Terminal 21 mall in Bangkok. Photo by Jim Algie.

For the expats and travelers of Western origins in Thailand, December 25 should be declared a national drinking holiday with Boxing Day designated as a mandatory sick-and-nursing-a-concussive-hangover day. 

Christmas is not an official holiday in the “Realm of Grins” but most expats will take it off anyway or be granted a little leniency by their Thai employers.

In the run up to the big day, Bangkok takes on all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas. Shopping malls are lit up like casinos. Office buildings put up trees. Even convenience stores deck the walls with strips of tinsel. It’s festive all right – in a kitsch kind of way.

Since Thais love any excuse for a party – the words for “work” and “party” are both ngan – there are loads of company parties and get-togethers throughout the month, not only for Christmas but the end-of-the-year holidays and bonuses to come.

Plenty of hotels offer special dinners and packages for Christmas Eve, like the Pathumwan Princess, while the Bangkok Hotel Lotus Sukhumvit is dishing out a special Christmas Eve buffet with Santa Claus, Santa Rena, and Christmas carolers to ring your jingle bells.

These hotels provide the family entertainment. But the pubs of English and Irish descent provide the lubrication that greases conversations and propels high spirits into overdrive. Many of them offer Christmas buffets. Some are pretty good. Some are terrible, with dried-out turkey, cranberry sauce from a tin, and gravy that may have leaked out from a crankcase, but chances are all the drinks will short-circuit your taste buds anyway.

Have a green Christmas at the Eaton Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of the hotel.


For the past five years, the Eaton Hotel in Hong Kong has been exemplary in showing how the holiday season can be celebrated in a greener light and earthier fashion.

This year is no different. That’s apparent when you enter the lobby. The five-meter-tall tree is composed of 50 reusable garlands and decorated with 410 fused light bulbs. With the assistance of The Eaton Green Team, all the light bulbs are colored with low volatile organic compound emulsion paint and then hand decorated with “Christmassy” patterns. The star crowning the tree is made of recycled light tubes. What’s more, the use of LED lighting saves up to 75% more energy than traditional light bulbs.

These themes of sustainability, recycling and handmade ingenuity are carried over at the Main St Cafe/E Club with its “3D Spiral Eco Christmas Tree” and in the T Bar where four wreaths were made from several hundred wine corks.

The hotel’s Environmental Officer Katrina Cheung told the press, “Christmas is all about loving and sharing. Since 2009, Eaton aims to share our love for this planet by creating a Sustainable Christmas that features decorations made of recyclables – a way to eliminate the side effect of resource wastage.”

South Korea is the only country in East Asia where Christmas is a national holiday. Photo courtesy of the Korea Tourism Administration.


In East Asia, South Korea, where 30% of the folks are Christians, is the only country to make Christmas a national holiday.

For the devout it’s still a religious occasion, and many younger Koreans also like caroling to their soul’s content. On the night of December 24th, churchgoers attend a mass before returning home to give gifts, usually in the form of cash.

Christmas evening is also something of a lovers’ night out. Far from the West, where cities are ghost towns on this family day, the larger urban centers can still be lively affairs with special shows at theme parks and all sorts of other activities with Yuletide themes.  
Seoul, to be sure, will make a flashy impression on your retinas. But for a more eclectic experience with a homier vibe try Busan.

At the Busan Christmas Tree Festival, now in its fifth year, are trees, art installations and light shows with an appropriately Christian theme of “Love and Healing.”  

In the Gwangbok-ro neighborhood, watch out for the street performers and the Christmas carolers, the photo and video contests, the chance to contribute to charities, and the promoting of fertility and marriage to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. As a centerpiece for the festivities to orbit around, a 20-metre-high tree stands like a glimmering sentinel. 

In this chilly climate, a winter wind can whip up a whirlwind of memories made up of all those ghosts of Christmases past and present.


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