There are many festivals in Thailand throughout the year, but not all of them have their origin in this mainly Buddhist country. For example, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas. It has been said before that Thais love celebrating and so they will adopt any event that looks like fun. With Christmas, it is more of an end of year festivity. Just because the shopping malls have Christmas Trees and carols are being sung across the nation, it doesn’t mean that they are celebrating Christmas.
During a recent ABAC Poll, 94% of Thai people said that they knew of Christmas. 44% of them said that Christmas is a festive season, one of happiness and family gathering. 26.5% said that they felt nothing special about Christmas. What would have been more interesting was if they had asked them what Christmas is all about. I bet many of them would have said that it is Santa’s birthday.
As Thailand is a Buddhist country, Christmas Day in Thailand is not a holiday. So, unless the Thai children go to an international school, all of them, including foreign teachers, were at school today. Quite a few schools put on some kind of activity and took this opportunity to tell the students the meaning behind the day.
At Sriwittayapaknam school, students dressed up as Santa Claus and little angels and they handed out candies to the kids as they arrived at school this morning. Then during assembly, everyone was entertained with Christmas carols and dancing around the tree. In the school, about 98% are Buddhists and the rest are Muslims and Christians. Only a handful really, but at least they can share an important part of their religion with their friends.
The closest I have been to celebrating a Christmas in Thailand are the Christmas lights and the big trees in the shopping malls. If we are lucky, like this year, we might also have a cold wind which will add to the illusion that it is Christmas. But none of this is real as the majority of Thai people are Buddhists and they are just celebrating for fun. Like in the West, it is all very commercial.
For the first time in many years, I’ve just celebrated what I consider to be more of a real Christmas. I’m in Sakon Nakhon Province which is in the Northeast of Thailand. A number of districts here have large Christian communities. The biggest is in Tha Rae sub-district where I’m told that out of the 50,000 or so residents, nearly 100% of them are Christians. To confirm this, all you have to do is walk around the neighbourhood on Christmas Eve and you will see that the majority of the houses are decorated with Christmas lights and decorations.
This is where I went on the 23rd and 24th of December. On the first evening I joined a tram tour around the neighbourhood where we took picture of all the beautifully lit houses. Everyone was so friendly and many people shouted out “Merry Christmas” to me. Afterwards I joined in with the first of three parades where local people carried handmade Star Lanterns to Saint Michael’s Cathedral. On Christmas Eve I was back again for a bigger parade of brightly lit stars on the back of about 30 pick-up trucks.
At the conclusion of the parade, the church bells started to toll and everyone headed to Saint Michael’s Cathedral for the nativity play. This was the first time I had seen this performed in the Thai language. It was the normal story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus in a stable. They even had kids dressed up as sheep and shepherds and three wise men. They all did a very good job much to the amusement of the large audience. The play was followed by a Christmas Mass.
On Christmas Day they had another parade, but this time much bigger. In addition to the floats from Sakon Nakhon, Thai Christians from three neighbouring provinces also took part in the parade. These provinces were Kalasin, Mukdahan and Nakhon Phanom. I was told that this time there were over 300 vehicles taking part in the parade through Sakon Nakhon city. Apparently the day before they had all taken part in smaller parades in their local communities.
Lining the street were thousands of people who had come to watch the brightly lit parade. Most of the floats had a Santa Claus that was handing out candy to the children. Adults too joined the scramble to pick up the candy that was thrown into the crowd. It reminded me a bit of Halloween. Some of the floats were better than others. One of my favourites was the brightly lit tuk tuk being driven by Santa Claus.
What all the floats had in common was a giant Star of David which gives the name to the parades. The parade finished at St. Joseph School where everyone was entertained with Isaan style music. I had a great time and would recommend it to anyone who wants to celebrate more of a real Christmas in Thailand with other Christians.
There is one thing about Thai people and that is they love to celebrate. It doesn’t matter if the festival originated in a different country (like Halloween) or that it comes from a completely different religion (like Christian). Give them a good excuse to have fun and they will celebrate just about anything! At our school, 99% of the students are Buddhists. There are a handful of Muslim children and probably one if not two students are Christian. Or at least their fathers are. In Thailand, Christmas isn’t a public holiday. However, many of the youngsters enjoy celebrating the “fun” side of the festive season. To them, Christmas means, Santa Claus, little angels, Christmas carols and folk dancing. That is what happened at our school today. As the students arrived at school, they were greeted by Santa Claus and some little angels who were handing out candy. Then, during assembly, the students were entertained with Christmas carols (the kindergarten students sang “Away in the Manger” ) and some folk dancing. Then they sang “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” and finally “Jingle Bells” in both English and Thai. At this time of year, people are giving each other cards and presents, but this is mainly connected to the New Year holiday which is just around the corner. Only Christian families will give each other presents on Christmas Day. The meaning of this day is not completely lost on the students. In their lessons they were taught about the story of Jesus. Unlike other countries, Thailand is very tolerant of other religions.
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Thailand is a Buddhist country. But that doesn’t stop us from joining in the commercial spirit of Christmas!
Santa at every mall. On every television channel. Christmas decoration and trees everywhere. Not all is lost though as you’d spot a few nativity scenes here and there at the local Catholic and Christian schools.
After all, the whole city–and country–has the lights up to celebrate the King’s birthday earlier in the month anyway, we might as well just make it Christmas lights and leave them up until new year!
And more importantly, we DO give gifts. Not for Christmas, but for New Year. You get new items to start the new year right!