For natives and foreigners alike, December is one of the most eagerly anticipated months of the year in Thailand. The late King Bhumibol’s birthday and Father’s Day are celebrated on December 5, Constitution Day is December 10, and school and office parties ensure a festive atmosphere between the 25th and the 31st.
But it was not always like that.
Kairos, my youngest son, and I celebrated our first Christmas in Thailand in 2011. We were living then in Phitsanulok province in the country’s lower north. It was probably our loneliest Christmas ever.
In the Philippines, the Christmas season starts early, with the sentimental seasonal tunes of Filipino singer Jose Mari Chan dominating the airwaves.
However, our first Christmas in Thailand was like any other day. At night, we joined some friends for dinner to celebrate Christmas but hurried home because we would have to be up early for work the next day. We did not even decorate our apartment because we could not find any Christmas decorations.
According to the Filipino workers I know who lived in Thailand in the early 2000s, Christmas was an alien celebration and decorations could be hard to find. New Year’s, however, was eagerly anticipated because of the three- or four-day holiday.
With a population that is only 1% Christian, it is understandable that it might pass by largely unnoticed. But with an influx of migrant workers, mostly teachers from English-speaking countries, Christmas is slowly becoming a part of what English-language students talk about. Santa Claus, carols, Christmas trees, reindeers, bells, stars and lights are now part of the English vocabulary among Thai students.
The Catholic churches in Bangkok, Phitsanulok and Nakhon Ratchasima, provinces where there are large concentrations of Filipinos, hold Simbang Gabi, or Midnight Mass. Nowadays, it is no longer exclusive to Filipinos. Some Filipinos have told me that other nationalities, including Catholic Thais, join the Mass. Recently foreign teachers, especially Filipinos, have been teaching their students Christmas carols.
Last year, in our English for Communication subject, I taught my students to sing carols. They went “caroling” around the university. Generous ajarns (teachers) gave them money and gifts, much to the delight of the students.
But in northeast Thailand – the Isaan region – Christmas has been celebrated by locals since the first Christian set foot here in 1881. The early Catholics were mostly Vietnamese people who escaped the persecution of their king, Tu Duc. Today, there are 54,000 Catholics, or 1.7% of the 3-million population of the Isaan region.
Ban Tha Rae, Sakon Nakhon province, has the largest Catholic community in Isaan. They are mostly descendants of Vietnamese and Lao Catholics. Since 1982 the village has been celebrating the annual Christmas Star procession to commemorate the Christmas Nativity. Probably it is the only place in Thailand, except in churches, where the nativity scene is prominently displayed in public during the procession. The celebration runs from December 23 to 25.
In 2013, my family and I moved to Nakhon Ratchasima. Christmas was not yet celebrated. Nakhon Ratchasima is the second-largest province in Thailand, and by that time the provincial capital city – also called Nakhon Ratchasima, but also known as Korat – already hosted big shopping centers like The Mall, Tesco Lotus, Makro and Big C. It was at the Big C where we purchased our first ever Christmas tree in Thailand. Since then, Christmas decorations have become available in many shops.
This year, as early as October, the big malls in Korat were starting to assemble their Christmas decorations. Christmas songs blared in the malls in early November. By December, the “Christmas Spirit of Commerce” was being felt in the city.
Each mall had its own Christmas theme. The Mall had a gingerbread theme for its Christmas tree and decorations, Terminal 21 had the classic style of Christmas tree and trimmings inside, while Central Plaza had an “emoticon theme.”
Mall staff were dressed in Santa outfits or wearing reindeer headbands or Santa hats.
Big C, Tesco Lotus and Makro also had Christmas trees and decorations but were less extravagant than relative newcomers to the city such as Terminal 21 and Central Plaza.
As in the Philippines, Thai people have started to indulge in last-minute shopping for their company or school parties. Exchanging gifts has become a tradition in some institutions in Nakhon Ratchasima such as Vongchavalitkul University and Kiattikun Wittaya School.
On December 25, Christmas Day, children and adults alike dressed up in Santa attire, wearing the traditional red and green clothes as they flocked to malls, celebrating in their own way.
For a foreigner like me, seeing Thailand “celebrating” Christmas makes me less homesick. Yet despite the Christmas songs and the holiday trimmings, I still miss one thing below the Christmas tree: the Nativity Scene.