Halfway around the world in Asia, the celebration of Christmas is quite different than the way it is celebrated in the West. Although the true meaning and spirit of the season might be lost in the obvious commercialization and marketing of the holiday in countries like Japan and Korea, certain traditions and celebrations have evolved that at least capture the essence of the holiday.
In Asia, there’s really no true meaning behind celebrating the holiday unless you happen to be a Christian. To be sure, having lived in Asia for the past 18 years, I have seen the holiday go from being just a special day to enjoy a “Christmas Cake” in Japan or exchange greeting cards in Korea to having the same overblown commercialism in cities like Bangkok, Seoul, and Tokyo, the same kind of rampant commercialization that I have seen back in the States.
In predominantly Buddhist Asia, the holiday for the most part has always been about the cultural overtones and not the holiday’s religious background. While more and more Christians in Asia are celebrating the holiday as the birth of Christ, the holiday has evolved rather quickly into a cultural and commercial juggernaut. Cities like Bangkok roll out the Christmas trees and decorations just in time for the onslaught of Western tourists who would rather frolic on the beaches of Koh Samui and suck down Singha Beer than fight shoppers in crowded stores back in Europe.
Yes, everywhere it is Christmas and you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy the holiday. Of course there is more emphasis on “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
I’ve spent a few Christmases in Thailand and I had no trouble getting into the holiday spirit whether it was finding Christmas trees or cards. And just last year when I was in Vientiane, Laos there were Christmas trees and decorations everywhere—of course to make all us Western tourists spending the holidays in Indochina to feel at home.
When I was living and working in Japan back in 1989 and Christmas rolled around most people gave a Christmas cake for the holiday though everyone had to work. However, you could find Christmas trees and all kinds of decorations. I went to Tokyo Disneyland two weeks before Christmas and the entire theme park was decked out in holiday cheer. You would almost expect that from Mickey Mouse and friends given the mammoth cultural and commercial enterprise that Disney is in countries like Japan—you know, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly” and lots and lots of Mickey Mouse.
The same was true, to a lesser degree the following Christmas when I now was living and working in Seoul (and where I have been since). Back then, in 1990, the holiday seemed to centered on the giving of Christmas cards, some rather nice and traditional; other’s a little cheesy and a commercial mockery of the holiday like the ones I saw of grotesque cartoon interpretations of Santa Claus.
Over the years though, the holiday has evolved into the commercial juggernaut fed by rampant consumerism and a holiday cheer. You definitely see more Christmas Trees and decorations than you did when I first arrived here, kids talk about Santa Claus, and at Starbucks, you can buy a special yuletide brew. A Korean family, one who I have been good friends with for about as long as I have been in Korea and who are devout Buddhists put up their Christmas tree last weekend.
Much of the holiday’s religious stronghold in Korea started with the Christian missionaries in the 1800’s and since then has grown significantly so the holiday in Korea is not without a religious precedent. At least this legitimizes the holiday amid the full-blown commercialization of the holiday that has evolved over the years.
So what is Christmas really like in Asia? It is, for the most part if you are a non-Christian, a cultural celebration, no more and no less and all dependent upon just how commercialized one wants their holiday cheer.