This time of year has a special religious meaning for Christians around the world, but in some Asian countries where Christianity is not the main religion, Christmas is still celebrated with pomp and style, often with a little local twist.
You’d be surprised at how many Christmas trees and people dressed up in Santa costumes you’ll come across.
As one of the two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Southeast Asia (the other being East Timor), Christmas has more religious significance in the Philippines.
The countdown to Christmas starts from as early in the year as September, while celebrations continue throughout January in the new year.
A popular Christmas ornament you can find everywhere in the Philippines is the parol, a star-shaped lantern traditionally made out of bamboo and paper that symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Wise Men to the manger.
In the past, parols were used to light the way for folks headed to pre-Christmas dawn Masses, also known as Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi.
On the night of Christmas Eve, many households will organize a huge feast for family and friends called Noche Buena (the Good Night), typically serving dishes such as lechón (roasted pig), bibingka (Filipino rice cake), and pancit (Filipino noodles), as well as úbe halayá (purple yam jam), fruit salad and other sweets.
In Indonesia, Christmas is known as “Hari Natal”, taken from the Portuguese word for the holiday, while Santa Claus is more popularly known as “Sinterklas”, thanks to Dutch influence.
Cookies are also a Christmas tradition, though rather than the chocolate chip cookies that are usually left out overnight for Santa, you’re more likely to come across nastar (a butter cookie with pineapple jam filling), kastengel (cheese cookies) and Putri Salju (“Snow White” butter cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar and cheese).
Christmas customs differ according to the region – for example, in Yogyakarta, wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances are held about the birth of Jesus Christ and the Christmas Day Mass is led by a priest wearing traditional Javanese attire.
In Bali, the roads are lined with towering penjors (a traditionally Hindu decoration of tall, curved bamboo poles decorated with yellow coconut leaves) and their Christmas trees are made of chicken feathers handmade by locals.
Christmas Day isn’t recognized as an official public holiday in Vietnam, but on Christmas Eve, the Vietnamese go all out.
In Ho Chi Minh City, due to its French colonial influence, crowds will gather in the city center on Christmas Eve night, particularly at the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. To celebrate, they’ll throw confetti and take photos of the Christmas decorations.
Most churches and Christian homes will have a nativity display, and Santa is known as “Ông già Noel”, or Old Father Christmas.
Gift exchanges aren’t that common, but the French bûche de Noël (a chocolate cake in the shape of a log) is a popular present.
Christmas here is more of a secular and commercial celebration, typically observed by eating and shopping.
Orchard Road, Singapore’s famous shopping district, is festooned with glittering lights, while many restaurants and cafes offer a special Christmas menu.
Shopping malls will also cater to last-minute Christmas shoppers, extending their opening hours and offering promotions for gifts.
The majority of the country’s population are Buddhists, so there’s no public holiday allocated for Christmas. However, you will still be able to find Christmas decorations scattered around, particularly at popular tourist attractions.
Shopping malls in Bangkok, like Paragon Mall and MBK Mall, love to deck the halls with tinsel and Christmas lights to spread the Christmas cheer. Central World is particularly known for its extravagant decorations, especially its gigantic Christmas tree.
Similar to Singapore, Malaysia’s Christmas celebrations are more secular in nature. Shopping malls will be filled with Christmas trees and ornaments, and you can take photos with Santa and his elves.
Gift exchanges are fairly common, and when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day, you’ll likely be able to hear fireworks being set off.
The day itself (which is observed as a public holiday) will be spent with family and friends (and usually involves a lot of eating).
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