Christmas Traditions In Thailand

Let It Snow: Christmas In Thailand

“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” The song reminds us of Christmas, yet snow comes only in the north. Most of the world has never seen snow. Most of the world listens to “Frosty the Snowman” without the slightest idea what the song is about.

Vicki and I will celebrate Christmas this year in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with a small group of American and Thai friends. Thais, Westerners, and others, mainly Chinese, will enjoy the party even though Thais lack a Christmas tradition and snow.

When Vicki and I first started coming to Chiang Mai, back in the 1980s, Thais would hang “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” signs on restaurants and guesthouses. The signs looked so pretty many Thais left them up year round. Thailand remains mostly Buddhist, without a Christmas holiday. But they care a lot about pretty decorations.

One year the owner of our guesthouse even stuck cotton in his palm trees. “Snow,” he told me.

This year Christmas started in earnest in early November, right after the Loi Krathong festival. During Loi Krathong, Thais make hand-size floats (krathongs) and push them into the river, with a candle and perhaps money stuck inside. Sending the float downriver is seen as sending troubles away. Similarly, on Loi Krathong, Thais send up 3-foot-tall hot-air sky lanterns to lift troubles from their shoulders.

Vicki and I enjoy Loi Krathong, perhaps in the same way Thais enjoy Christmas. We get into the spirit without fully relating to the tradition.

Right after Loi Krathong here, Christmas started. Lights and even more decorations and signs popped up. We now hear Christmas carols in the malls, some sung in English, some in Thai. Everyone loves Christmas presents; you can bet Thai children want their parents to “Christmas” them. The way Thais look at it, “Christmas” is a verb.

As far back as I can remember people around me have complained about the commercialization of Christmas. And as near as I can tell, commercialization has won, especially around here.

Then again, here’s a pleasant thought. Psychologist Steven Pinker has researched war and violence over the centuries. Pinker concludes that violence has declined in recent decades, in spite of a constant stream of violence in the news, on TV, in movies. He calls the period since the end of World War II the “Long Peace,” arguably the most peaceful time in world history.

So what caused the Long Peace? Pinker lists four pacifying forces, including an “expanding circle of empathy.” As the world becomes more cosmopolitan, as we get to know each other better, we have more empathy and compassion for our neighbor. These days our neighbor could be a real neighbor next-door or a Costa Rican or Indian halfway around the world.

In the spirit of the season, as we head into this Christmas week, I’d like to think we expats have helped expand the worldwide circle of empathy. Each of us does a small part, contributes just a little. But with more and more expats, over longer periods of time, we may be able to contribute to more understanding among cultures. Result: Less war, less hate.

What a fine Christmas present. As the kids say: Awesome.

Paul Terhorst