Christmas is far from just a Western holiday. Across the world, the festive season is shaped by cultural norms and local flair – but everywhere it’s celebrated, food and family take centre stage. From buckets of KFC to a nine-day-long series of church masses here are some of the best Christmas traditions from around Asia.
Close to a third of South Koreans count themselves as Christian – add the cold weather and snow, and you have a good chance of seeing a white Christmas in South Korea. Christmas in the nation is a national holiday, a day to celebrate with friends and families. Western Christmas dishes have been replaced by South Korean festive fare, such as beef bulgogi, japchae sweet potato noodles, and of course plentiful kimchi.
Santa Haraboji – Grandpa Santa – takes on a different look, often opting for green or blue robes instead of his traditional red. Sometimes you’ll even catch him wearing a gat – the tall top hat worn by nobility in Imperial Korea. And at Seoul’s Jogyesa Buddhist temple, Christmas tree-shaped lanterns take pride of place in the temple courtyard, a symbol of religious peace and harmony.
India’s festivals are known for being colourful and vibrant, and Christmas is no exception. Though celebrations take place all over the country, they are at their most impressive in places with significant Catholic populations such as Goa. Here the churches, marketplaces and homes are decorated with festive flair: such as the giant star-shaped paper lanterns which are hung between houses, so that the stars float above the streets.
Christmas dinner is most commonly eaten on Christmas Eve: this is an opulent feast of sharing dishes, normally including biriyani, meat curries, and a collection of Goan sweets and pastries called kuswar. After dinner, local Christians attend midnight mass in churches that have been decorated with Poinsettias and candles. Gifts are still delivered to children by Santa Claus – or Christmas Baba, as he’s more widely known in India. However, rather than arriving on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, it is said he delivers his gifts from a horse and cart.
The Philippines has the longest Yuletide season in the world. Pop-up shops selling all manner of festive decorations appear along major shopping streets, and carols can be heard in stores from as early as August. The official Christmas – or ‘Ber Months’, as they’re known – countdown starts on 1 September, and continues until the Feast of the Three Kings in early January.
The nation is Asia’s largest Catholic country, and Filipinos take part in a nine-day-long Simbang Gabi series of masses, which culminate in the Misa de Gallo mass on Christmas Eve. After mass, they enjoy a feast known as Noche Buena: an open house celebration with family, friends and neighbours, who drop in to wish each other Merry Christmas. Food includes lechon roasted pig and coconut-laced bibingka rice cakes, and the most popular decorations are parols – colourful star-shaped lanterns that hang from bamboo poles, said to represent the star that guided the Wise Men to Jesus.
While Japan enjoys the wintry weather of everyone’s favourite traditional Christmas carols, that’s where the western traditions stop. Instead of a turkey dinner, Japanese families tuck in to big buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken – the result of one of the world’s most effective marketing campaigns, dating back to the 1970s. For dessert, stodgy Christmas pudding has been replaced by light, fluffy Christmas Cake – a sweet sponge topped with whipped cream and strawberries.
Gifts are still exchanged in Japan, but this takes place on Christmas Eve and is mostly just among couples. In fact, Christmas Eve is a romantic occasion in Japan, widely considered the Japanese version of Valentine’s Day.
Hero image: iStock