CHIANG MAI, THAILAND
Buddhists don’t celebrate Christmas, but as a testament to its cultural gravity the idea of tiny trees, Santa Claus and lights on a string has percolated through to most of Asia. The Philippines, Singapore and South Korea actually observe Christmas as a national holiday (South Korea has more Christians the Buddhists – weird, huh?), but in places like Thailand, China and Japan it’s been distilled down to its essential meaning: Consumerism!
You’ve probably heard the urban legend about a Japanese department store nailing Santa to a crucifix. Even though it’s complete nonsense, the trope isn’t entirely off the mark – unless you’re Christian, Christmas here has almost no meaning beyond the plastic Santas and fake trees outside shopping centers. It’s not that Asia doesn’t get it, nor is it that it’s trying to mimic the West, it’s just that the mystique of Christmas has been perfected to the extent that it’s appealing cross-culturally.
Christmas as a faux-holiday has been around in Japan since at least the 1930s (yes, back when they were evil!), and along with Valentine’s Day the retail sector has pounded it into the Japanese psyche pretty effectively. Thailand, on the other hand, is a little more subdued. Bangkok is probably kind of nuts right now (Bangkok is always nuts), but here in Chiang Mai there’s very little decor outside businesses targeted at Westerners.
But no matter where you go, there’s one place you can always find a little bit of Christmas: The Mall.