How does Asia celebrate Christmas?

Christmas is observed in a variety of ways around the world. Here’s a look at some of the amazing and unique Christmas traditions that Asians practice.

TableCheck

TableCheck

Dec 21, 2023 - 7 min read

How does Asia celebrate Christmas?

Finally, the time for Christmas festivities has arrived. People worldwide are getting ready to host, feast, shop, and celebrate with their friends and family. From holiday baking to Christmas tree ornaments, the festive spirit is all around.

How is Christmas observed in Asian countries? Do they have similar rituals or distinct rituals that borrow from local traditions? Do they decorate their Christmas trees, feast on roast turkey, and pray at midnight? 

Let’s learn more about the beautiful Christmas traditions of countries in Asia and Oceania:  

Japan

Even though only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, Christmas is as festive as it gets. During the winter holidays, the streets of Tokyo are lined with a dizzying array of Christmas markets and illuminated displays.

Japanese Christmases are distinct due to the fact that they incorporate certain new customs that have gained popularity over time.  As a secular day in Japan, it is popular with lovers to celebrate their devotion and love for each other. Typically, couples plan romantic dinners and a day out to see dazzling Christmas decorations and pretty lights around the city. The Japanese adoration of Kentucky Fried Chicken is another quirk of the holiday season there. Yes, KFC and fried chicken in general are quite popular throughout the holidays, and to meet the high demand, meals have to be booked in advance. For dessert, people love eating Christmas cake, also called ‘kurisumasu keeki," with loved ones.  Strawberries, sugar Santas, and other elaborate edible Christmas ornaments give these cakes a festive appearance.

KFC in Japan
KFC in Japan

China

Just like in Japan, Christmas in China is similar to Valentine's Day. However, it is also a special day to meet with friends. The Chinese usually go to malls to dine, go shopping, ice skating, watch a movie or sing in a karaoke bar.

Most shopping malls and restaurants go commercially big during the Christmas season complete with light decorations, paper lanterns, and massive Christmas trees. Usually, there's some real live entertainment in the malls showcasing "Shengdan Laoren" (Santa Claus) playing the saxophone–a unique tradition that's specific to China.

With China producing most of the world's Christmas decorations, it's no wonder why Christmas is such a commercialized event even if it has no religious connotations within the Chinese culture.

Some Chinese families celebrate the day with sumptuous family feasts which include Chinese staples like roast pork, Chinese dumplings, Chinese spring rolls, and rice. The Chinese also have a unique tradition of giving "apples" as gifts, which come in cellophane packages together with written messages like 'peace' and 'love' in Chinese characters.

A street in Xi'an China decorated for Christmas
A street in Xi'an, China decorated for Christmas

Indonesia

In Indonesia, where Christmas is called Natal and where there are 28 million Christians, Christmas is a big deal. Plastic Christmas trees and Sinterklaas (yes, that's Santa Claus) are common sights in urban shopping malls during the holiday season. Most local TV stations show Christmas musical concerts and the annual national Christmas celebration organized by the government. Cookies are popular, especially "nastar" (pineapple tart), "kastengel", and "putri salju" which are staples at every Christmas celebration. It's important to remember that different parts of Indonesia celebrate this lovely festival in slightly different ways.

Ambon, home to a large Christian community, has a purifying ceremony called "cuci negeri," whereas Toraja witnesses mass dances and bamboo music performances, and, Papua, another province in Indonesia, is known for its pig cooking rituals. Even though regional customs vary, there is an unmistakable sense of optimism and joy that permeates the entire country.

In Bali, the local habitants don't celebrate Christmas, but instead, follow the tradition of Ngejot". The practice brings together the whole community where they share cakes, fruits, and other types of food with their relatives and neighbors as a means of maintaining peace and harmony between religions.

Even though there's no traditional Christmas Bali, it remains the destination of choice among travelers during the festive season. Most hotels get into the spirit of Christmas and serve the best Christmas buffets and menus to their guests.

Tourists visiting Hyatt Regency Bali at this time of the year will spend their Christmas at the Sanur beachfront while enjoying a great Italian culinary experience with antipasti and wood-fired-oven pizza and a selection of unique cocktails, Balinese style.

India

Christianity is followed by somewhat more than 27.8 million of India's 1.4 billion population, hence it is observed as both a religious festival and a holiday.

People in predominantly Catholic neighborhoods like to go all out for the holiday season. This includes donning their finest apparel and singing Christmas carols and hymns. Midnight mass is attended by both Catholics and non-Catholics because Christmas is seen as a secular festival. Because of the timing of the winter holiday break, which begins just a few days before Christmas for schools and colleges, the celebration is infused with an especially upbeat atmosphere. Catholic schools generally have a big Christmas celebration a day or two before Christmas day and a break for the winter holidays. 

Typical school celebrations involve pupils acting out a nativity scene and finishing with a teacher dressed as Santa Claus blessing the kids with candies. The Nativity scene is also put on display in homes, churches, store windows, and Catholic neighborhoods.

Philippines

Filipinos love a long Christmas celebration, with people starting the countdown for Christmas as early as September 1st! 

Filipino Catholics wake up before dawn every day from December 16 to Christmas Eve on the 24th for "Simbang Gabi", a nine-day series of masses that begins as early as 4:00 a.m. The Simbang Gabi on the 24th is followed by a midnight feast, called Noche Buena, where family, friends, and neighbors come to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Queso de bola (cheese balls), chocolates, noodles and pasta, fruit salad, pandesal, "relleno", and "hamon" or Christmas ham, are among the typical yuletide fare served at the feast. Most tables would be groaning under the weight of delicious dishes like " lechon" (roasted pig), ham, fruit salad, "bibingka", "puto bumbong", more desserts, steamed rice, and a variety of drinks. Christmas celebrations continue until the first Sunday in January, when Epiphany, also known as the Feast of the Three Kings, is celebrated.

A Tree at Central Square in El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines
A Tree at Central Square in El Nido, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Palawan, Philippines

Singapore

With a large community of ex-pats, Christmas in Singapore has become a huge event, regardless of whether it is celebrated as a secular or a religious day.

Singapore's famous Orchard Road boulevard turns into a long avenue of bright Christmas light displays, and every shopping mall is decorated with sparkling lights and fantastic Christmas store displays.

With many local and international restaurants open for Christmas in Singapore, Christmas menus vary depending on the type of establishment. From seafood to sumptuous meats, Christmas-themed afternoon teas, or unlimited canapes, it's the time of the year when guests can indulge and feast to their satisfaction.

At Picotin Waterboat house, guests can now book for Christmas Eve and Christmas day celebrations.

South Korea

Christmas is a national holiday in South Korea because of the country's substantial Christian community, which accounts for almost 29% of the population. It is however more of a couple's holiday than a family festival. It's an excuse to stay at home with your partner or loved one and celebrate in a small, intimate way that draws you closer together. Korea doesn't have the same Christmas dishes as other countries, but it does have its unique specialties and foods that most Koreans who celebrate Christmas love. These include Korean BBQ, "Jjolmyeon" (sweet and sour noodles), and other delectable winter meals. It's not uncommon for couples to cap their Christmas dinners with a beautifully adorned Christmas cake. 

At the Mariposa & M29 restaurant at Fairmont Ambassador Hotel in Seoul, this Mariposa Christmas Special Course menu is a culinary feast of seasonal-inspired dishes and drinks to add to the merriment.

Another unique aspect of Christmas in Korea is the Korean ‘Grandpa’ Santa, also known as Santa Kullusu or Santa Haraboji, who distributes gifts and embodies the season's joy.

Instead of red robes, Grandpa Santa can be seen wearing blue or green robes. 

Taiwan

While only 5% of the Taiwanese population are Christians, Taiwanese Christmas has become a commercial festivity of grand proportions and there's no other place to celebrate it than in Christmasland in New Taipei City. Here, Christmas goes into full force complete with festive light displays, Christmas-themed activities, and art installations. Over the years, it has become the destination of choice for locals and tourists to celebrate the holiday season.

Meanwhile, all over the city, every cafe or bakery in the city serves Christmas treats and cakes. Hotels and restaurants offer special Christmas menus and buffets while in some aboriginal villages, restaurants cook up seasonal produce to whip up their version of a Christmas meal.

Thailand

Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country, and the country celebrates Christmas in a non-traditional sense. Throughout different cities, statues of elephants and even real-live elephants get dressed up for Christmas to distribute gifts to schoolchildren.

Thailand is a popular destination among tourists, so hotels ramp up and amplify Christmas festivities with sumptuous Christmas special menus and buffets. Restaurant staff keeps the Christmas party spirit by donning red hats during their service. At home, families forego traditional American dishes that are associated with Christmas but instead opt for some special curries and rice.

One of the best places to spend Christmas is at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in Bangkok. Check their Christmas dining experiences in restaurants like Salvia, Gaston, The Dining Room, and more!

Vietnam

Although Vietnam is a Buddhist country, Christmas, known locally as "Giáng Sinh," retains a special place in the country's festive calendar. This is due in part to the fact that Vietnam was formerly a French colony, and parts of the country still preserve relics of its colonial past, which come to life around the holidays. One such delectable Christmas tradition is eating the French Yule log cake, or bûche de Noel, during the holiday season.

Christmas in Vietnam is a huge celebration. Vietnamese people decorate their homes and streets with lights, Christmas trees, and other decorations, as well as exchange gifts and attend religious ceremonies. The habit of hosting a Christmas Eve Mass outdoors in city squares, where people gather to celebrate and pray, is a unique tradition in Vietnam. Following the liturgy, there is usually a communal feast and other celebrations. In Vietnam, other common Christmas traditions include singing Christmas carols, making special Christmas foods like chicken soup and, sometimes, turkey and pudding, and spending time with family and friends.

Oceania and the Middle East

Australia

Christmas traditions in Australia have many similarities to those in the United Kingdom and the United States, but as it's summer in December, some beautiful local traditions have developed over the years. It's customary to start seeing Christmas decorations in stores and on the streets in November. Quite a few people take the time to spruce up the outside of their homes. There are simple and complex displays with hundreds of lights and holiday-themed decorations, like Christmas trees, Santa Claus, reindeer, and nativity scenes.

Australian artists and writers give Santa Claus an Australian touch by having him wear an Akubra hat, casual clothes, and thongs and drive around in an ute driven by kangaroos. Another local tradition is sending handwritten Christmas cards to near and dear ones. Every region in Australia has its unique tradition for this special occasion – South Australia and Western Australia have colorful pageants, while Victoria has spectacular public gatherings where people sing carols by candlelight.

New Zealand

During Christmas, there is a mashup of British and North American customs in New Zealand. As New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, which is warm during December, local traditions have developed keeping in mind the weather during the holiday season. In New Zealand, Christmas decorations combine typical winter scenes from the Northern Hemisphere with scenes from New Zealand's history and the Bible.

Traditional Christmas flowers like mistletoe and biblical stars and angels are on display among native flora, ferns, and flaxes. The "pohutukawa", a deciduous tree that blooms with showy scarlet blossoms in December, has become the de facto New Zealand Christmas tree due to its widespread association with the holiday season. On Christmas, loved ones usually feast together. Lamb, ham, beef, root vegetables such as potato and "kmara" (sweet potato), and a selection of salads are typical fare for Christmas lunch. It has been common practice to serve cold meats and seafood because it’s warm during this time of the year.  The desserts are a blend of British and local customs. So, on the one hand, there's the Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, fruit mince pies, and trifle, and then you have local desserts like pavlova topped with summer fruits.

United Arab Emirates

Even though Christmas is not an official holiday in the UAE, this time of year is spectacular, with Christmas trees, lights, and decorations gracing all major cities. As the 25th of December approaches, homes, hotels, malls and stores across the country are decked out with green huge and tiny Christmas trees. Green and red color schemes begin to appear everywhere, along with Christmas music. WAFI Mall and Souk Madinat Jumeirah, in particular, offer an annual Christmas fair complete with decorations, traditional food, sweets and beverages, gifts, carols, and contests. The Expo City in Dubai has also reopened for a winter wonderland bonanza with everything from traditional markets to ticketed events and a chance to see Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.

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