Photo Essay: Christmas in Asia

Although Christmas is of course a Christian holiday, it’s become a somewhat fashionable day to celebrate around the world, especially in Asia. And having lived in Asia for several years now, I’ve had many opportunities to compare how Christmas is celebrated across the region.

In the United States, Christmas is all about Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Christmas TV specials, gift giving, singing Christmas carols, baking gingerbread cookies, drinking eggnog, and seeing our loved ones. But could it really be the same far away in a mostly non-Christian part of the world?

Join me as I take a look at what Christmas is like on the ground in four different Asian countries – Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, and Mongolia. Now put on your Santa hat and let’s go country hoppin’!

Christmas in Patpong 2013
We start our journey in Thailand, where roughly 95% of the population is Theravada Buddhist. Hence it should come as no surprise that most Thais don’t celebrate Christmas. However, the Thais are particularly fond of decorating, so they don’t pass up a perfect opportunity to decorate when Christmas rolls around every December. During the festive season, everywhere you go in Bangkok is filled with classic Christmas colors and Christmas trees. Pictured here is Patpong, a red light district in central Bangkok popular with Westerners. Christmas streamers and balloons fill all the streets and bars.


Christmas Promotion Girls at Watsons in Bangkok
Outside of a Watsons, the Hong Kong-based health and beauty franchise scattered all across Asia, young Thai women wearing Mrs. Claus costumes hand out free samples for new beauty products. Promotion women are a big thing in Asia, especially in Thailand where they’re referred to as “pretties.” Seeing young gorgeous women wearing Christmas attire in December in Bangkok is a common sight, especially at shops, restaurants, and bars.


Christmas Decorations at MBK Center in Bangkok
At the corner of Phayathai and Rama I Roads in Bangkok lies MBK Center, one of the most popular shopping malls in all of Southeast Asia. This is also quite possibly the busiest and most photographed spot in the entire country. The mall always has lots of flashy decorations during the month of December, and the decorations change from year to year. In 2015, the year in which this picture was taken, a gingerbread man was the decoration of choice.


Tuk-tuk outside of MBK Center in Bangkok
At the entrance of MBK Center is a tuk-tuk that people can sit in and take pictures. The tuk-tuk is usually here year-round, but in December it has Christmas decorations as a backdrop.


Right across from MBK is Siam Center, yet another one of Bangkok’s giant, trendy shopping malls. At its entrance is a giant Christmas tree made of old CRT television sets. I give them credit for being creative!


Christian Christmas Performance in Kaohsiung
We’re in Taiwan now, which is the only country on this list that has a notable Christian population. And even though they only make up roughly 5% of Taiwan’s population, they are arguably the most noticeable in the country. During the Christmas season, many Taiwanese Christians walk through the streets handing out flyers that promote Christianity. Pictured here are members of a Christian church putting on a performance right across from Kaohsiung Arena, a hotspot for foot traffic in the city. Volunteers next to the stage passed out pamphlets to anyone who would take them.


Santa Claus on a Motorcycle in Kaohsiung
Right across from the Christian performance, a man dressed as Santa Claus pulled up to the curb on a bossin’ motorcycle. It looked like he was doing a live video on his cell phone, as many people (including me) would stand next to him, have their picture taken, and then wave at his cell phone. He sure garnered a lot of attention, as a giant crowd of onlookers gathered around him in only a matter of seconds!


Baby in a Christmas Costume in Kaohsiung
Outside of the giant Dream Mall in Kaohsiung, this little baby was sure gettin’ his Christmas groove on! His parents dressed him up in a cute little Santa Claus outfit.


Family Posing at Tokyo Skytree
Now we’ve made our way north to Japan, yet another Asian country with a negligible Christian population. Just like in Thailand, Christmas decorations in the country can often be found outside giant shopping malls and modern tourist sites. Here a family poses together for a photo outside Tokyo Skytree, one of Tokyo’s most famous tourist attractions. Christmas in Japan is all about getting photos of yourself and loved ones standing next to flashy Christmas decorations. This is especially true for young Japanese women, as they are the most into “kawaii” (cutesy) culture.


Outside of a nightclub in Roppongi, Tokyo’s famous with Westerner’s nightlife district, a Santa Claus statue sits among other festive decorations. Bars tend to be the most likely places in the country to get into the Christmas spirit. It certainly draws more customers in, so why not?


Man Browses at Adult Toy Store in Tokyo's Shinjuku Dsitrict
Over in Tokyo’s super popular Shinjuku district, a middle-aged man browses through an adult toy and lingerie store. Sexy Mrs. Claus outfits seem to be popular all around Asia during the festive season. Remember Bangkok?


Santa Claus in a Mercedes-Benz in Tokyo
There’s no better way to spread brand awareness in Asia during December than to get someone in a Santa Claus outfit to promote your product. This is because Asians absolutely love getting pictures of themselves and loved ones together with Santa to post all over social media. Here we see a Santa Claus waving at a crowd of onlookers from a fancy Mercedes-Benz SUV. Guests were invited to go for a free test drive with Santa and one of his reindeer (not pictured). People were drawn into the car dealership like moths to a flame.


Over in Kamisu, the little town where I live about 75 miles east of Tokyo, there aren’t a whole lot of Christmas decorations. However, one pawn shop was sure getting into the holiday spirit. The whole shop was filled with Christmas lights, Christmas trinkets, Christmas trees, and other various Christmas decorations. Outside of the shop was a life-sized Santa statue, which sure stands out in a dull little town like Kamisu.


Icy Christmas Tree in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
And now we’ve made it about as far north as you could go in Asia – Mongolia. Because December temperatures drop well below freezing in the country’s icy capital, building ice and snow sculptures is a popular way for locals to show their holiday spirit. Pictured here outside of the State Circus Building in central Ulaanbaatar, a group of boys gaze in awe at a Christmas tree made of ice blocks.


School Christmas Show Performance in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Inside that very same building pictured above, middle school students put on a Christmas show for their families and classmates. Pictured here are Mongolian students performing a dance routine to some upbeat Christmas carols. I stuck around for about 30 minutes and noticed everyone in the theater seemed to be having a lot of fun.


Over at Chingghis Khan Square, perhaps the most famous place in all of Mongolia, a family poses for a picture in front of a giant Christmas tree. The whole square is filled with Christmas trees and lights, which looks really cool at night when the whole square is all lit up. Genghis Khan and Christmas lights are not something I normally picture together, but I’ll take it!


Mongolian Tugrik on a Christmas Tree
While we’re on the topic of Christmas trees and Genghis Khan, I’d like to point out a cute little trend I noticed across Ulaanbaatar during the Christmas season. Many shops and restaurants have little Christmas trees as decorations, and one way the trees are decorated is by putting notes of money on them. Pictured here is a 10,000 tugrik note, which is actually worth about US$4, but usually much smaller denominations of bills are used as decorations. This is a nice little Mongolian twist on Christmas. I like it!


Christmas Costume Street Vendor in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Sure, you can buy Christmas decorations and costumes almost anywhere in Asia during the month of December, but only in Ulaanbaatar do I see them being sold in the streets by vendors. Everywhere I walked in central Ulaanbaatar, it seemed like I was never far from a booth of Christmas goodies. Heck, it almost felt more like the Christmas season in Ulaanbaatar than it generally does back in my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. Snow and ice everywhere, Christmas trees and decorations on every block, trendy Mongolian Christmas music videos playing on the TVs inside every restaurant, and plenty of bearded and burly Santa Claus look-alikes all around the city. If you really want to experience a vibrant Christmas atmosphere somewhere in Asia during the holiday season, then look no further than Ulaanbaatar. It’s a great place to be during Christmas time!


Christmas Broadcast at Chinggis Khan Square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
The sun has gone down, and we’re back at Chinggis Khan Square. A group of children stand in front of a video camera and shout “Merry Christmas” again and again. They did several takes, so I assume everything was being done for a television broadcast.


So there you have it. That’s what Christmas is all about in most of Asia – a time to promote products, to decorate malls, restaurants, and shops, to take pictures to upload to social media, for Christmas sales, and to just have fun. In other words, the superficial aspects of Christmas are very easy to find across Asia during the month of December, but the traditions – such as exchanging gifts, going to Midnight Mass, eating a Christmas ham or turkey, and drinking alcoholic eggnog – are largely lacking.

But considering most Asians are not Christians, a Westerner like myself has to take what I can get during the holiday season. Nothing beats being at home and enjoying the holiday with one’s loved ones, but I’m happy to say that you can still get into the joyful holiday spirit halfway across the world here in the Far East.

And whether you’re a Christian or not, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! There’s lots more to come on my website in 2017, so stay tuned all throughout next year!