What Christmas is like in Asia

Christmas can be a dazzling sight to behold in some parts of the region. (Photo: 123RF)

New Zealand is in full swing for the silly season. Unlike in the northern hemisphere, New Zealanders celebrate with summer weather and Pōhutukawa trees. But what’s it like in Asia during the festive season?

In some parts of Asia, Christmas is primarily a commercial affair. This year, Singapore’s famous shopping belt Orchard Road features numerous Christmas sets, including the 20-metre Walk of Wonder tunnel. Shoppers can share the Christmas spirit on social media with #OrchardRdXmas. Trains, buses, and transport stations are decorated with a Tropical Christmas theme.

The lack of an official holiday has not stopped Japan from developing its own unique Christmas tradition. Every Christmas, around 3.6 million Japanese people enjoy a meal from KFC. The tradition started shortly after KFC first opened in Japan in 1970, when the company promoted the Christmas “party barrel” as a substitute for a turkey dinner. 

Christmas decorations Tokyo Japan 2014

A Christmas market event in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Asia Media Centre)

In the Philippines, the holiday period, popularly known as the “BER months”, is taken much more seriously. Christmas celebrations are long-lasting in the predominantly-Catholic nation, where festivities begin in September and continue until January. One of the highlights of the Christmas calendar is Noche Buena, the Christmas Eve feast. The meal, a remnant of the country’s Spanish colonisation, brings family and friends together to enjoy Filipino favourites such as lechon (roast pig) and bibingka (coconut cake). Christmas is also a time of religious observance for the approximately 93 percent of the population that identifies as Christian. This is evident with Simbang Gabi, nine days of pre-sunrise mass held from December 16 through to Christmas Eve. Some Filipinos believe they will have a wish granted upon completion of all nine masses.

While Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, Christmas is a public holiday and celebrated by the country’s approximately 24 million Christians. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are among six religions officially recognised by the government. Christmas celebrations provide evidence of lingering Dutch influence. Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands from 1800 until 1945. People may still refer to Father Christmas as Sinterklas, and enjoy treats like kastengel. At times, however, the holiday faces criticism. In 2012, the conservative Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa (religious edict) declaring that Muslims should avoid Christmas celebrations. Despite that, there was disagreement with the fatwa in the Muslim community. Then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the vice-president, both Muslims, attended annual Christmas celebrations with their families in Jakarta.

Christmas display in Changi Airport Singapore 2017

The 2017 Christmas display in Singapore's Changi Airport. (Photo: Asia Media Centre)

Despite the holiday not being officially recognised in the People’s Republic of China, the autonomous territories of Hong Kong and Macau celebrate with a public holiday in part due to colonial pasts. Macau was under Portuguese administration from the 16th century until 1999. Portuguese remains an official language alongside Cantonese. Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom from 1842, with most of the present territory leased in 1898 for 99 years. In both territories, Christmas festivities were well-established prior to handovers in the 1990s. However, Christmas is also increasingly popular in the PRC, thanks in part to rapidly rising numbers of Chinese Christians. It’s also spread with the commercialisation of the holiday during China’s prime shopping season and favour among Chinese students returning from countries that celebrate the holiday.

In Brunei, where Islam is the official religion, Christmas has been banned since 2014. The government introduced a stricter penal code based on Sharia law in 2014 out of concern it would negatively influence the Muslim population. Non-Muslims can celebrate the occasion, provided they do so in private and first alert the authorities. The Muslim population would face jail time or heavy fines.

In North Korea, religious celebrations of Christmas are likewise banned. The country’s Christian population must celebrate in secret, at risk of punishment by the regime. Yet it is common to find Christmas trees and other non-religious decorations in elite hotels and restaurants in Pyongyang. The chief executive of Fortnum and Mason said the upscale British grocer recently received a hamper order from North Korea, but that they declined the request.

– Asia Media Centre