Finding the Christmas Spirit in Thailand

published Dec 17, 2013
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(Image credit: Jade Keller)

While Thais might not spend the winter holidays sledding in snow or kissing whiskies by the fire, they are generally a fun-loving nation of people who welcome any excuse for a party and Christmas is no exception. Thai people happily take up any opportunity to indulge in more festive, twinkling lights.

Despite the tropical climes, Christmas trees abound — the plastic kind, of course— and the bigger and brighter, the better.

(Image credit: Jade Keller)

Surprisingly, Old St. Nick, while known to Thais, remains rather thin on the ground, though his hat can be seen gracing many a noggin, such as on these Santa Elephants. Who needs elves when you can have elephants?

(Image credit: Jade Keller)

It’s part of the charm of Christmas in Thailand: the creativity and adaptability involved. We in the West have pretty well-formed ideas of what Christmas should look like. Thais have no such boundaries. Christmas is open to wide interpretation.

When I was eight years old and came to Thailand for the first time, my cousins wanted to celebrate Christmas with us. They found a tiny tree (which you can get here in such festive colors as orange, pink, or teal), adorned it with plastic doodads, and passed around birthday hats to punctuate the general cheer. It might have been a tad mismatched and piecemeal as far as décor goes, and instead of turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, we ate egg rolls, curry, beef salad, and steamed fish. In lieu of wine, there was Singha beer. And in place of carols around the tree, there were a few half-hearted attempts at “Jingle Bells” hummed out of tune, with most of the words forgotten.

But family gathered together after years spent apart, sharing in the gift of each other’s company — and isn’t that more what Christmas is about than the precise shade of red stocking to hang by the fire?

Christmas in Thailand is about the spirit of fun and shared festivities rather than the precise form in which it “ought” to be celebrated. Besides, what calls Christmas to mind more than a band of singing cowboys?

(Image credit: Jade Keller)

As a transplant from the US to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I can be lax about the décor, but the one tradition I hold onto no matter where we travel is to bake Christmas cookies. I brought with me family recipes handed down from American and German predecessors; such heirlooms as nutty sweet cinnamon stars, snowy almond vanillekipferl, rich chocolatey bourbon balls, and decadent caramel turtle thumbprints — all perfect accompaniments to my wicked strong eggnog.

To me, it can be 90 degrees outside, and it’s still Christmas so long as the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg permeates the house.

(Image credit: Jade Keller)

While Christmas might not be imbued with the same spiritual meaning for Thais as it is for most Westerners, this time of year remains special as Thais celebrate ringing in the New Year. This holiday is the time to go home to family and exchange gifts. They go to temple to tham boun, or make merit, with meditations and charitable donations. When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, fireworks boom through the air and Thais release khom fai—floating lanterns, which rise up into the sky like millions of celestial orbs. That’s my favorite part: wishing on a floating light.

(Image credit: Jade Keller)
(Image credit: Jade Keller)

Christmas might have more of a DIY feel in this part of the world, but it remains every bit as magical.

Christmas Around the World

We’re celebrating Christmas and the winter holidays around the world, inviting friends and fellow writers from The Philippines to France to Rwanda to share how the holidays are celebrated in their corner of the world.