Christmas in the Land of Smiles
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, a number of my family and friends from back home in America asked me what things were like here in terms of Christmas, and whether the Thais celebrated it. Like many things in Thailand, the answer is “it depends…”.
The population in Thailand is about 95% Buddhist, 4% Muslim, and less than 1% Christian. So one might think that Christmas wouldn’t really be understood or celebrated here. And that is essentially true. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get just as much into the “Christmas spirit” as we do in the West. From mid-December through January is the peak tourism season here, with tourists being primarily from Europe, Australia and other Western countries. And because many of those tourists are Christian, the Thais have learned a bit about our Christian holidays and have somewhat adopted many of the traditions (at least from a retail perspective).
In late-November or early-December, you see “traditional” Christmas decorations go up at most of the malls, hotels and large office buildings. By “traditional”, I mean Christmas trees, strings of colored lights, strings of garland, large oversize boxes wrapped in colorful wrapping paper, Santa Clause pictures and cardboard cut-outs, elves, reindeer, etc. Christmas music is also often playing at the malls.
There are also some “non-traditional” decorations, for lack of a better description. I don’t think the Thais fully understand how all the various characters tie into Christmas. For example, along with Santa and his reindeer, it’s not uncommon to also see random cartoon figures. (Side note: I think a future blog post will be required on the Thai fascination with cartoon characters/mascots). Or a nativity scene might have some figures that look like Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, but then it’ll also have Hello Kitty dolls, elephants and Thai puppets. The Thais love – LOVE — celebrating things, so they’ll jump at any opportunity to go all-out with decorations and fun. It definitely makes for a festive, if not slightly different, kind of Christmas feel here.
Aside from the decorations and fun, the Thais don’t celebrate the actual Christmas holiday. That is, they don’t do gift exchanges, and it’s business-as-usual for Thai businesses, schools, shops, and government. Although some of the large multinational companies that employ larger numbers of foreigners do recognize the holiday and give workers some time off.
Another question I’ve gotten from people is whether the Thais celebrate New Years. Although they have their own “new year festival” called Songkran in April (see my post from last April about that), they do in fact recognize January 1st as the start of the new calendar year. There is one small difference, though, in that they follow a Buddhist calendar which apparently is 443 years ahead of our calendar (it’s actually more complicated than that, but I won’t go into the details here). That is, this year (2012) is year 2555 for them; On January 1, 2013, it will be 2556 for them. They do use the Buddhist calendar in daily life; for example, my utility bills for Internet, cable TV etc. show dates using the 2555 year. So there’s another interesting trivia fact that you probably didn’t know before reading this.
In order to take advantage of the “cool season” (and the word “cool” is used in a very relative sense here…), starting in late-November or early-December you begin to see large “beer parks” being erected outside malls, large office buildings or other public plaza areas around the city. These are somewhat similar to “beer gardens” that we have in America for various festivals and civic parties. They are typically large, fenced areas with tables and chairs for guests, often with a stage for bands, DJs or other entertainment. And while they sell food, their primary purpose is to sell beer and alcohol. They open in the evenings around 6pm, and the idea is that for a couple months of the year, the weather is “cool” enough outside to relax with friends in the open air without the need for air conditioning.
Many of the larger beer parks are sponsored by the primary beer companies here – Singha, Tiger, Chang, Heineken – as well as by other liquor companies such as Absolut or Sangsom (Sangsom is Thai whiskey…brutal stuff. Umm, so I’ve heard…). They can hold anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people. The largest conglomeration of them is outside the CentralWorld mall, where there are 4 or 5 of them lined up end-to-end along the large outdoor plaza. The day I took these pictures, they hadn’t opened yet so they look (and are) empty except for a few of the workers there getting ready. But after they open and the music/entertainment starts, they’re typically packed full of people enjoying the evening.