While a glittering effigy of sleigh-riding Santa being pulled by his reindeer in the backdrop LED snowflakes probably isn’t the first thing you think of when conjuring images of what sweltering Southeast Asia looks like, truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction –particularly during Christmas season.
In order of least to most, here are some surprising reasons why the spirit of Christmas is alive and well in Southeast Asia, despite the chasm of geographical space separating it from the West.
The undeniable commercial value of the holiday
Let’s go ahead and get this one out of the way: Christmas is a commercial holiday. The powerful effect that Christmas and all of its pizazz has on shoppers is not a concept that’s lost to businesses in Asia. Let there be no doubt about it: businesses in the region are keen to leverage as much of that holiday-spirit shopping fervor as possible. And who can blame them?
Combine that with another cold reality, that most people in Asia have been exposed to Western movies, music, and media for decades and are, at least subconsciously, receptive to it… and it’s easy to see how Christmas has infiltrated Southeast Asia.
But is it all just for show? Well, not exactly.
Some areas do actually recognize Christmas for what it is
No matter how you look at it, there’s no denying that Christmas is, at its heart, a Christian holiday. While there may not be as many Christians in Asia as in the West, they can certainly be found. In places like Philippines, which is over 90% Christian, it should come as no surprise that Christmas is widely celebrated. In fact, Philippines holds the distinction of having the world’s longest Christmas season –with official holidays being recognized from December 16th until the first Sunday of the New Year! So if you’ve ever wanted to rupture your ear drums after hearing post-Thanksgiving Christmas music, consider this –in Philippines, Christmas carols can be heard from September all the way until the “Feast of Santo Nino,” on the third Sunday of January!
Elsewhere in the region there are sizeable-enough populations of Christians for Christmas to be recognized on its religious merits as well. In northern Vietnam, for example, many of the ethnic minorities are Christian and, in most large cities throughout the region such as Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur churches become hives of activity during the Christmas season –so if that’s what you seek, you’ll have no problem finding it.
It’s an excuse to dress up and party
If there’s one common thread that connects people throughout Southeast Asia, it’s a penchant for having a good time. In Thailand for example, the word “work” and “party” are one and the same: “ngan”… that’s how seriously they take having fun.
The truth of the matter is, most people who engage in Christmas hoopla in Southeast Asia do it because it’s fun. It’s an excuse to dress up, have fun, decorate and get gifts for the people they love. Anything more than that is beyond the scope of their knowledge and interest. Offices throughout the region throw Christmas-themed parties, parents bring Santa-hat clad children to parks and shopping malls, and the occasional Santa-suit wearing local will whiz by on his motorbike. Why? Because it’s fun. That’s it.
Christmas is contagious
Regardless of who you are or where you came from, it’s hard to stare straight-faced at a man wearing a red Santa-suit and hilariously fake beard while bellowing “HO, HO, HO, MERRY CHRISTMAS!” – particularly when it’s done with a thick Asian accent and you’re a few degrees latitude from the equator.
Christmas is contagious. Sooner or later, after being exposed to its undeniable charm, most people give way and allow it to influence their mood for the better… few are totally immune to its influence. Almost anywhere you go, particularly in big cities, the festive vibe of the season and its festive vibe can be felt.
People sincerely value the spirit of the season
If you’ve ever experienced Christmas in the West, you’ve almost surely experienced the palpable sense of obligation that surrounds it. It often seems more like work than pleasure – who should you buy gifts for? What if they don’t like what you get them? Will you alienate people if you don’t buy gifts from them? Etc. That’s saying nothing of the added stress that congested streets, chaotic malls, and ravaged shelves create during the holiday season.
Here’s the kicker: people in Southeast Asia, should they choose to partake in it, have all of the fun that comes along with Christmas, without any of the obligations.
It’s precisely because Christmas is so unexpected in Southeast Asia, and precisely because it is so unusual and strange that it can be so joyous and fun.
If you want to dress up in red and paint the town the same color, you can do so without hesitation –and you’ll probably meet a fair number of people doing the same thing. If you want to show someone how much you care about them with a gift, you can do so and it will be that much more meaningful.
In this way, Christmas, as it’s celebrated in Southeast Asia, is more true to the original spirit of the season (minus the religious part…unless you’re in Philippines). Granted a large part of it is commercial, but there is an undeniable sincerity in how Christmas is approached that, with the proper context, demands appreciation.
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