Christmas has long grown beyond a simple Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. The combination of glittering decorations, gift exchanges and the spirit of goodwill towards mankind has kept the holiday popular even amongst non-Christians. Traditions have, of course, evolved over time (Mary and Joseph did not deck the manger with strings of blinking LED lights) but they’ve also been localized in a myriad of ways.
With over 80 million practicing Catholics, the Philippines is easily the most Christmassy country in Asia. The hardcore festivities start around Dec 16 and continue through to the Feast of the Three Kings (the first Sunday of January), but carols can be heard and decorations bloom as early as September.
An iconic Filipino Christmas custom is the creation and displaying of parols, ornamental star-shaped lanterns traditionally made out of bamboo and paper, the original design of which can be traced to an artisan named Francísco Estanislao in 1908. Illuminated by candles, the lanterns were used to light the path to dawn mass in rural areas, where electricity had yet to be available. Parols remain the most prominent symbol of Christmas for Filipinos today, though they tend to be made of more modern materials, and come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
In Japan, Christmas has shucked just about all religious connotation and has come to resemble Valentine’s Day in spirit. That is, a day for couples to trade presents, take romantic walks and moon at each other over candlelit dinners. The merry festoonery of the holiday is popular; Christmas trees, European-style Christmas markets and elaborate decorations abound. Trendy neighborhoods in Tokyo are particularly stunning, as every year they’re trussed up in millions of lights.
As with the West, the staying power of some traditions can be attributed to sharp advertising (Santa and Coca Cola, anyone?). In 1974, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii! (Kentucky for Christmas) campaign succeeded in making fried chicken synonymous with the holiday. Since less than 2% of Japan is Christian, KFC essentially had a blank slate to shape what a local iteration of Christmas should look like. And it’s no casual meal. “Party barrels” include cake and wine, and people pre-order weeks in advance because the chain’s restaurants are so packed the day of.
Although India brings to mind vibrant Hindu festivals, Christmas is celebrated by over 25 million people and is no less colorful. As a former Portuguese colony, the city of Goa is especially festive. Neighborhoods compete to create the most elaborate nativity scenes (called Christmas cribs) and spend Christmas Day exchanging homemade goodies with one another. For Catholics, attending mass (usually at midnight) remains a core component and so the churches are lavishly illuminated.
But what really sets Christmas in Goa apart is its homemade sweets, many of which are a blend of cultural influences and ingredients. Bakeries and families create mouth-watering chocolate cakes, palm sugar dumplings called neureos, dark fruitcakes, rose cookies, cardamom and cashew macaroons, colored marzipan, a toffee-like confectionary called dodol, and the list keeps going. If you’re worried about the overload of calories, take part in another of Goa’s traditions: all night Christmas dance parties!
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.