Celebrating Christmas in Asia

December 15, 2015 7:30 am

You may have noticed from the subtle hints in the media and the lights adorning your neighbours’ houses that it is nearly Christmas. The traditional ingredients of a British family Christmas, the mince pies, the pudding, the red-robed Santa and the occasional squabble, are weaved tightly into our culture. But what about further afield? It’s not all trees, tinsel and turkey.

Here we take a look at how Christmas is celebrated across Asia and you’ll see that some traditions have links back to the West, whilst others are more homegrown.

Śubh krisamas

We will begin our tour in India, where the influence of British culture, thanks to two hundred years of colonial rule, has left its mark on Christmas celebrations. India’s smallest state, Goa, in the west of the country has the largest percentage of Christians (mostly Catholic) and it is here that celebrations of Christmas are most noticeable, despite Christmas Day being a national holiday across the country.

Traditional European adornments, such as a Nativity scene or a Christmas tree, can be found in some Indian homes, although the tree is either an imitation pine tree or branches of a native tree, as it is hard to find a Norwegian Spruce in India. More unique to India are oil burners or small electric lamps placed on the roofs of houses and decorations made from banana or mango leaves.

Alongside a penchant for roast turkey and Christmas cake, the Goans also enjoy traditional sweets, including neureos (small pastries which are stuffed with dry fruit and coconut before frying) and dodol (similar to toffee, with coconut and cashews). These homemade sweets are often given as gifts to friends and neighbours.

Sheng Dan Kuai Le

Things are a little different in China, where Christmas Day is not a public holiday, (apart from in Hong Kong, which is again an echo of its colonial heritage). The Christian population is relatively small in China, at under 2% (although this still amounts to 23 million people) and as such, Christmas celebrations have historically been relatively private and low-key, with a simple exchange of gifts and cards amongst some of the Christian population.

Christmas in Hong Kong

Christmas in Hong Kong: Here, Christmas Day is still a public holiday.

However, in recent years the gradually increasing openness to western culture (and a growing western ex-pat community) in China has seen some of the larger eastern cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou start to resemble their western counterparts, particularly in commercial shopping areas, with some shops adopting Christmas-themed decorations and promotions. This commercial aspect is a largely secular affair, with the younger locals enjoying the colourful lights, ornaments and ‘Shèngdàn Lǎorén’ (the Chinese Father Christmas), while remaining unaware of the celebration’s connection to the birth of Jesus.

A more unique Chinese Christmas tradition is that of eating apples, as the Mandarin word for apple is ‘píngguǒ’, which sounds very similar to ‘Ping’an Ye’, the Mandarin translation of the carol ‘Silent Night’.

Jeulgaeun krismas doeseyo

Moving down into South Korea, where between a quarter and a third of the population are Christian, Christmas is both conspicuous and understood. As in India, the citizens of South Korea enjoy a public holiday on December 25th. The country goes big with the decorations, with Seoul looking particularly magnificent by night. Santa Claus (or Santa Grandfather as he is sometimes known locally) is as likely to be found in a blue suit as he is a red one, but his sack is more likely to be filled with cash, as money remains a popular and traditional gift in South Korea.

Christmas cake in South Korea is a lighter affair, usually consisting of a sponge cake covered in cream, or possibly an ice cream cake.

Over the border in the North, things are far less festive, as celebrating Christmas can land you in prison.

Meri Kurisumasu

For happier Christmas tidings we can head to Japan, where the last few decades have seen the growth of a particularly unique and peculiar Christmas tradition.

Legend has it that in the early 70s, a group of American tourists happened to be in Tokyo on Christmas Day and were looking for turkey. Not generally being available in Japan, the closest the tourists could get to a Christmas turkey was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC latched onto this, and in 1974 launched an advertising campaign entitled “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!), encouraging the Japanese to come in for some chicken on December 25th. This campaign (which continues to this day) was wildly successful – despite not being a public holiday in Japan, diners will queue for hours for the special menu which includes a cake and a commemorative plate.

Christmas Eve in Japan is in many ways similar to Valentine’s Day in the west, with couples going out for a romantic meal and exchanging gifts.

If you want to mix it up a bit this Christmas, but don’t fancy the idea of KFC or ice cream cake, why not spice up your Boxing Day finger buffet with some tastes of Asia? The Cafe Asia range is now available in over 500 Iceland stores nationwide.


Image credits:

Featured image: By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas in Hong Kong: By Habactmas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons