Celebrating Christmas as a Church in a Buddhist Nation

Thailand does not celebrate Christmas. It is just another work day in the cool season. The Thais are all looking forward to New Years and the week off from work around that time. The church in Thailand celebrates Christmas with a Christmas service. To them, this is Christmas. They worship God, eat food together and have some party games. The date is either the Sunday before or after Christmas or sometimes even a little earlier than that. Ask a member in the church and not even half of them would be able to correctly name the 25th as the date of Christmas.

The church uses the Christmas season to reach out to the community. This year we held special free English classes that focused on Christ’s birth. The church held an outreach at the slum community where they fed everyone there and gave gifts to all of the children. Tonight we will have an all-church party and then go caroling. None of these are set according to a western tradition of Christmas. New Year’s is the big holiday, and many people will travel outside Bangkok for New Year’s. In fact a group of leaders in the church are leaving on the morning of December 25 for their trip in order to return for work in time.

Celebrating Christmas in a Buddhist country is not counter culture. The country does not oppose Christmas, they just do not know Christmas like we do.

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Christmas in a Buddhist Country

When we walk around in Thailand, we are confronted with a realization that Christmas holds a foreign concept to the Thai people. The decorations have pushed their way into the big shopping malls and even on some of the downtown streets, but with one subtle difference. The decorations mostly say Happy New Year.

Christmas and the narrative behind the holiday are not known in Thailand, but the festivity and exuberant decorations have been seen in the movies and holiday images. They are beginning to get the idea, even if it is a little fuzzy still.

Recently, I was wearing a pink shirt for the coming King’s birthday celebration. I wore bright pink for days leading up to the King’s birthday as it was a good excuse to wear bright colors. Normally, Thais only wear bright colors during Songkran (for about 1 week), but I love wearing lots of different colors. Pink was the color this year, a lucky color. While wearing this shirt, one of the girls in the church came up to me saying how festive I looked and ready for Christmas. I was confused and said, ‘my shirt is pink.’ The girl replied it is bright and looked perfect for Christmas. I didn’t bother to explain the red for Christmas is not a broad and all encompassing red, but a specific and bright Christmas red.

The symbols of Christmas get mixed up here, so we do our best to make our apartment feel like Christmas. We have a little tree, trimmed and ready from the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas penguins and more throughout our apartment. This perplexes the Thais who think that Christmas decorations should only be put up the last week or two of December.

However, we do hear Christmas music played in the malls and airports. We even hear the traditional carols that clearly articulate the message of Jesus’ birth as to a Thai person they just signify a big holiday. On our flight back from Chiang Mai and a missionary retreat with other Foursquare missionaries in Thailand, the plane played Christmas music to give the feel of Christmas, songs like ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘What Child is This’. The music resonated in us bringing to mind Christmas memories. To others, it just sounded like another genre of music designated for this western holiday.