Log fires crackling in the hearth. Mulled wine warming your hands as snow falls silently outside the window. These are the things that say ‘Christmas’ to most: wintry weather amidst yuletide cheer. But how, then, do you celebrate the festive season in warmer climates like most of those in Asia? Let’s explore the best ways to see in the silly season, with our Christmas in Asia countdown!
This hot and humid city (and country) might not immediately spring to mind when you think of Christmas trees and decorations. But Singapore still has a huge British colonial influence and is a city full of Western expats keen to keep to their Christmas traditions. From soaring Christmas trees and decorations across all the shopping malls to the special festive shows at Singapore’s famous Gardens by the Bay area, you’ll get your fix of warm weather but also Christmas cheer in Singapore.
Pro tip: Universal Studios in Singapore usually swaps out some of its usual shows for Christmas-themed fare.
Okay so it might not be the hottest place over December, which actually makes Japan the perfect place to still feel like you’re in a winter wonderland, while enjoying uniquely Asian hospitality.
Avid skiers and snowboarders will know that Japan is a winter sports paradise – some of the softest, fluffiest powder in the world, meticulously graded slopes and world-class sushi available at every mountainside restaurant. What’s not to love?
Even if you’re not a ski bunny, head to Tokyo. The city comes alive with twinkling Christmas lights, larger-than-life pine trees and famous festive songs blaring from many a speaker along most of the city streets, with ‘Starlight Street’ in the middle of the central town being a key attraction for tourists.
You might also be lucky enough to spot Japanese families feasting in a very peculiar way. Around Christmas Day, Japanese communities order buckets of fried chicken and eat them in their living rooms. Why, you might ask? In the 1970’s, KFC ran a TV campaign called ‘Kentucky for Christmas,’ which seems to have stood the test of time.
Just like its national musical pastime, K-Pop, Christmas in Korea is a little different to the norm. However, because 30% of the population is Christian, you can find quite a few activities and traditions that you’ll recognize.
South Korea is one of the only countries in Asia where Christmas Day (25 December) is a holiday, although the day is geared towards young couples rather than families. You’ll find gift-giving, you’ll definitely hear Christmas carols but you’re more likely to be eating kimchi than a turkey roast with all the trimmings.
Give Seoul a try for a holiday over Christmas. You might just run into “Santa Haraboji”, the Korean version of Santa Claus!
Now, Vietnam is probably not the place to go if you’re dead set on observing all of your favorite Christmas pastimes – you won’t find them here.
That said, December is a great weather month (albeit a little hot) since the monsoon rains will be over and you’ll be able to get around the country relatively easily. Head over to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, because on Christmas Eve you’ll find locals heading into the city centre for light shows, decorations and even to throw around a bit of red and green confetti, as inspired by the French who once occupied the country. In some places, you could even find a church that conducts Midnight Mass.
Or, if you’re looking for a new way to celebrate, get out of Ho Chi Minh to Mui Ne, and spend your days on almost deserted beaches or sandboarding in the brick red sand dunes of this coastal city.
When you think of China, probably Christmas isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And, you’d be right – China doesn’t really observe Christmas, and their Chinese New Year is more their time to celebrate. That said, Christmas in China would be a fantastic experience.
You could head up to Harbin, for the largest ice and snow festival in the world! While it usually only officially opens in the first few days of January, you’ll find arctic cold conditions up in Harbin, perfect for a wintry break and a few glasses of eggnog.
The festival attracts nearly 20 million visitors every year and you’ll be mesmerized by the gigantic ice sculptures, Yabuli alpine skiing, and even winter swimming in the Songhua river.
Also, the Ice and Snow World at Harbin is open for Christmas so you can visit life-sized buildings made entirely of ice and snow; over 80 hectares of it!
Not keen on icy cold conditions? You could head to neighbouring Macau, Hong Kong or even Taiwan. You’ll find ‘Christmas apples’ – essentially cellophane-wrapped apples – but also might see the Chinese version of Santa, called 聖誕老人 (shèngdànlǎorén).
We saved the best for last – Philippines is the biggest and the best when it comes to Christmas. This country of 7,641 islands is world-famous for being the most eager to kick off the holiday season – most retail stores start decorating their shopfronts in September!
Yup, Filipinos love Christmas so much that they start the season on the 1st of September. This is probably since most of the nation is still Christian in faith (it’s the third largest Roman Catholic country in the world), plus has a huge Spanish influence.
If you’re wanting to really channel your Christmas spirit, just head over to bigger metros like Manila, or even invest in an island-hopping holiday to Palawan. You can swim with rays in El Nido, then hop over on the ferry to the deserted islands of Coron and cruise the underground river in Puerta Princesa before returning to your hotel and unwrapping some presents just like home…
Pro tip: San Fernando, in the Pampanga province northwest of Manila, is known as the ‘Christmas Capital of the Philippines’ since they run the Giant Lantern festival from mid-December to January. This beautiful city comes alive with massive lanterns; festive spectacles that must be seen to be believed!
Heading over to Asia for Christmas? Remember to book your travel in advance since December is one of the busiest months of the year, and buses, trains, and ferries tend to book up quickly.