Welcome to December, the last month of the year. Now we are at the last chapter of the year. In fact, our readers may already be experiencing the jolly festive spirit of Christmas for themselves right now, as many places have or are preparing to set up their Christmas trees.
This is no coincidence, Thailand is, after all, known as the land of smiles and inclusivity; we're always ready for a good time that is inclusive of everyone and anyone. We are a land of multi-culturalism, E pluribus unum; out of many, one. There are many festivals and celebrations in Thailand. We have incorporated the many festivals and celebrations originating from all roots and walks of life, all of which are reflected and celebrated in every part of the country. What we come to know as the modern Thai identity and our varied celebration are the result of the blending of many cultures. In this article, we will be discussing the origins and Thai incorporation of two of our most notable celebrations; Chinese New Year and Christmas.
Let's start with the Chinese New Year - Kim
Thailand is home to many Thai people of Chinese descent. At present, there are an estimated 10 million of Thai people of Chinese descent in Thailand, accounting for 11–14% of the country's total population (2012), not accounting for many that live in harmony with local Thais through marriage. They live in various parts of Thailand. Many of them are concentrated in the appropriately named ‘China Town’ of Yaowarat Road and Sampeng. Additionally, they are present in other provinces too; such as Nakhon Sawan, Khon Kaen, Chiang Mai, and Phuket.
Chinese New Year is one of the most important festivals of China, it is considered the New Year's Day according to the Chinese calendar (resembling Songkran of Thailand). The origin of the Chinese New Year is caused by organizing to intend to celebrate spring because the period before the New year is covered with snow; therefore, the farmers are unable to farm. They have to wait until spring comes; before they can farm again as normal. Thus, the Chinese designate the first day of spring each year as an essential day, becoming what we now celebrate as "Chinese New Year".
Red and firecrackers are pronounced and iconic iconography associated with the celebration of Chinese New Year. Many of the traditions of Chinese New Year, the lighting of firecrackers, the reverence of the colour red, are based upon the myth of Nian. Nian was a ferocious beast who dwelled in dense forests of ancient China. It enjoyed travelling around and eating people on the regular. So, the Chinese Gods punished it by trappiing it on a mountain for 365 days, allowing it to descend only once in 365 days. The day that it descended from the mountain is the day that winter recedes and people starts coming out to celebrate the festival of Spring - this day is the day we celebrate today as Chinese New Year.
After much struggle, the villagers eventually discovered a solution to the problem caused by Nian. They ascertained that Nian was afraid of the colour red, loud noises, and fire; so they scheme to get rid of him once and for all. The villagers brought out red paper to stick on their front doors, hung red lanterns with firecrackers, and continued beating the gong. When Nian arrived at the village, he saw that every household had a bright light, and the constat crackling of firecrackers frightened him so much that, he flew back into the forest and never came out rampage and bother the villagers ever again.
In Thailand, before the Chinese New Year comes, Thai people of Chinese descent will go out to buy food, fruit, and offerings, to worship gods. Pay respect to their ancestors and spirits of relatives who have passed away when the Chinese New Year is coming. The central point of this festival is the gathering of the family. Chinese New Year is fundamentally about the honouring of those who came before us and those who are with us now. Families will travel irregardless of distance and reunite to have a meal together; all for the sake of the most integral and foundational unit of society, the family.
Thailand received this festival from China much long time ago, ever since the Chinese migrated to trade and settle in Thailand. During this time, the festivals and celebrations of their mother country were not forgotten. Chinese New Year survives today through the intermarriage of these Chinese labourers/merchants and the local Thais. The intermingling of these cultures is what gave birth to Thailand's Chinese New Year. This traditional celebration is still honoured and practised by the descendants of those Chinese labourers/merchants today, and it has made its way into popular culture as a result of how influential it truly is.
The Chinese New Year's is an expression of gratitude for ancestors and respect for the family, which are similar beliefs to the Thai Songkran festival. Songkran is the festival celebrated as the Thai New Year. This festival falls on April 13-15 every year. Similar to how Chinese New Year is family-centric, Songkran’s traditions all revolve around the unit of family. Water is used as the main element in the ceremony because of its astronomical calculation that the sun moves into Aries which is summer; or put simply, IT’S REALLY HOT(Nott) - so thus was born the tradition of pouring water on each other for refreshment in the summer. The main tradition of Songkran is the Watering of the respected and revered people, elders, parents, and teachers to ask for their blessings, apologize for transgressions, and to ask them their New Year's wishes.
You can see that the ceremony emphasizes the expression of gratitude to elders, something that is shared with Chinese New Year and many Asian traditions and celebrations in general. Therefore, it is no surprise that Thai people accepted the practices of Chinese New Year as well.
Moreover, Thai people who are not of Chinese descent have adopted the Chinese tradition of worshiping and applying to worship sacred things such as offerings to the shrine of the household god, which is a belief that has been inherited from Hinduism. In the shrine of the Brahmin - Hindu gods, like the Erawan Shrine (formally the Thao Maha Phrom Shrine), which Thai people worship in conjunction with Buddhism, it was found that Chinese offerings were brought to worship during the Chinese New Year. In addition, Thai people also regarded the Chinese New Year as an occasion to reunite relatives and children as an opportunity to celebrate another family day.
All of these factors in mind, it is clear why the local Thais took to Chinese New Year so readily and accepted it as their own. Then how about Christmas? A festival of a foreign region, culture, and nation - how did us Thais come to accept it and integrate it into our own calender? And how do we, a majority Buddhist country, even come to celebrate a religious Christian celebration?
Christmas, the Celebration of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ - Nott
As a devout Catholic, I feel it my duty to retell the relevant and correct historical development of Christmas, and its significance to Christians such as myself.
The English term ‘Christmas’ translates to ‘mass on the day of Christ’; so it may come shocking to many of our readers that Christmas was not recognised or celebrated until the fourth century! So how did the Christmas that we celebrate today come about? And how did it become entangled with Christianity? The answer to those questions are found in the shared roots and purposes of Europe’s various pagan winter festival, celebrated prior to the spread of Christendom.
History of Christmas - From Pagan Roots to Modern Day Black Friday Consumerism
To understand the spiritual and practical significance of a winter festival, we must look into history and the pagan celebrations of Nordic Yule and Roman Saturnalia. Practically, it is of sound sense for people under the grasp of the four seasons to develop a festive season in winter. To prep for the harshness of winter, livestock would be slaughtered so they would not have to be fed. Beer and spirits would finish fermenting just in time for the end of the year; a perfect alignment of factors for a great celebration to send off the year and endure through winter. Fresh meat, preserved by the cold, and beer fermented for a year - one hell of a celebration!
The circumstances surrounding Saturnalia is not too dissimilar of European winter festivals and Nordic Yule - a short, but lively time period known for food and drink and the temporary suspension of usually strict Roman social hierarchy; allowing for temporary but, well-cherished equality. Our astute readers would notice by now, that these two pagan festivals preluding the church’s creation and recognition of Christmas are festivals that celebrate togetherness and cheerfulness in face of adversity. Although these celebrations have been lost to time, their spirit of community and strength have endured and are passed on through Christmas.
As stated briefly above, the early christians did not celebrate Christmas. In that time, only Easter was acknowledged and celebrated - the resurrection of Jesus, a joyful end to to the Lenten season of fasting and penitence. The creation and recognition of Christmas first came about during the papalship of Pope Juilus I, who, in an attempt to further unify and consolidate the faith, chose to celebrate the birth of the Lord and saviour, on the day of December the 25th. This decision was deliberate in order to absorb the afforementioned Roman celebration of Saturnalia. Disregard how questionable the date actually is, once one delves into the biblical story on the birth of Christ - why would the shepherds be out tending to their flocks in winter? The tactical choice intende to supercede the celebration of Saturnalia also had the downstream effect of increasing the popularity and local embrace by taking on the popular European winter festivals (like the Nordic Yule). This succeeded tremendously, with Christmas largely replacing all of the pagan celebrations in these regions, but at the cost of religious continuity and uniform practice - it is this varied practice and fractured celebration that the various traditions of contemporary Christmas comes about.
We’re closer to Christmas as is celebrated nowadays, but we’re missing one crucial historical turning point, and like many things in history; when in doubt, blame the British (and to a lesser extent, the Yanks). The eighteen century is often romantacised, with the Victorian aesthetic and time period being appraised and complimented for in many of classic literature’s greatest works. What we forget, my generation especially, the fools of history that we are, is that this was a time of great strife. This was a time period set smack in the middle of the industrial revolution, of worker exploitation, and of massive inequality. One novel alone commentated on the forlorn circumstances of Victorian society, and spotlighted the light in charity, good-will, and forgiveness; single-handedly changing how Christians viewed the festival that is Christmas. That novel was of course, Charles Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. This novel cut through the social divides and struck a powerful cord in Victorian society at large, igniting a reimagining of the spirit central to Christmas. It forced Christians to reflect on what Christmas meant, and drove many to return to the roots of their celebrations, namely the pagan Yule and Saturnalia influences - finally, bringing to front the decorated trees (Yule), holiday cards, and gift giving contemporary Christmas that we celebrate today.
So, how is Christmas significant to Christians? Afterall, early Christianity only acknowledged the celebration of Easter. Christmas is the day that all Christians are called upon to remember and honour the birth of the Son of God, and the saviour of humanity. He became flesh in order to forgive us of our sins and our transgressions. We are called to forgive and sacrifice as he did. He walked the earth and joined humanity, loving and forgiving all. We must remember, that regardless of sect, we are all praciticing Christians, stumbling and struggling together. We display our love for one another and our thankfulness in remembrance of the birth of our saviour. Remember that his birth prepared the way for his death, and the redemption of all mankind.
This message is targetted particularly to my fellow Christians who recognise and practice the religious aspect of Christmas. Do not let the secular aspects that dominate contemporary Christmas blind you from your reverence, devotion, and remembrance for which you celebrate Christmas. Hang your lights, decorate your tree, and sing your tunes. But remember that we do so because Christ’s birth and ultimate sacrifice allows us so. He lit up the darkness, redeemed the name of man, and so we sing praises to his name.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. “
“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
With the myths, origins, and siginificance concerning Christmas wrapped up, let us return to our original thesis - how did Thailand end up incorporating and accepting the Christmas festival as our own? Especially because Thailand is a majority Buddhist nation - but there in lies the key.
Like how Thais readily took to the adoption of Chinese New Year as their own, the prevalence of Buddhism and its open-mindedness allows for many religions and their festival to be practiced by its followers with little issue. Therevada Buddhism as practiced in Thailand nowadays has aspects of Brahm-Hindu, Chinese/Daoist, and many other religious and cultural components blended into the greater Buddhist narrative at large. Although Christianity’s beliefs are largely incompatible with that of Buddhism, Buddhism’s open acceptance to difference does not prohibit the celebration of a festival as iconic to the world as Christmas. In addition, the globalised secular version of Christmas that has been popularised in the 1980’s is how Christmas is practiced globally for the most part. This consumerist approach to ‘Christmas’ blends perfectly with the Thai love for ‘Sanook’ and enjoyment - aspects that are fundamental to us Thais. The salient religious undertone of Christmas is lost in this Thai practice, something that is lamentable (personal opinion, everyone benefits from the presence of Christ in their lives) All that matters to the Thai celebrators is there’s an opportunity and a time to party and party they shall; embodying the festive spirit promulgated by the secularist consumerist Christmas that has come to dominate the globe.
Sigh. If only Christmas was also federally recognised as a holiday too… But I suppose that is up to me to turn that measly 10% of Thai Christians into a number that would substantiate change ;)
Santa Claus (B O N U S !):
So what then, of the origin of the ever popular, fat, jolly, cookie-loving children’s hero, Santa Claus? How did this figure supercede Christmas’s intended purpose of celebrating of humanity’s saviour? And how did the jolly old fat grandfatherly figure manage to sideline the birthday boy himself?
He needs no introduction. A figure so iconic and forever associated with the festive season. He comes at dead of night, on a sled pulled by seven reindeer, handing out presents to children, and crossing off his list. The childhood enigma and fascination behind Santa Claus is something that I’m certain most children have taken part in - willingly or not, mostly the latter; we didn’t exactly know any better lol.
Saint Nicholas, or better known as Santa Claus was based off a real Christian saint by the same name. Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of many, including but not limited to; sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students. But of all these, he is first and foremost the most well known for being the patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was known for his piety and generosity. Many of his stories tell of him rescuing children from calamity and returning them to their families; do you see the familiarity now? Omitting the cookie craving, chimney climbing, reindeer herding - this is the originator of the Santa Claus we all know and love today. As for his name, Santa Claus is an anglicised version of ‘Sint Nikolaas’, shortened to ‘Sinter Klaas’, is Dutch for Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus draws from the Sinter Klaas.
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