Christmas in Asia

by AFP/Lawrence Bartlett, Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

HONG KONG, X'mas, 2009 - From fairy lights and tinsel on military bases in Afghanistan to a Green Santa in Japan, a Secret Santa in South Korea and a Boozy Santa in Vietnam, Christmas has come to Asia -- home, of course, to the World Champion Santa from Hong Kong.

For a region without all that many Christians, Asia has a lot of Christmas.

Jingle Bells is as likely to haunt shoppers in malls in Buddhist Bangkok or Islamic Jakarta as it is in London or New York.

And in the background can be heard the massed ringing of cash-registers in China's southern Guangdong province, Santa's modern grotto, which exported four billion dollars-worth of toys in the first nine months of this year.

While it is mainly the commercial and festive charms of Christmas that have worked their way into end of year celebrations in Asian countries, the region's Christians keep the religious traditions alive.

In the Philippines, where some 80 percent of the population of about 94 million are Catholics, the season begins with nine pre-dawn masses from December 16 and ends with the celebration of Epiphany in January.

The military also takes a breather from fighting Muslim separatists and communist insurgencies with an annual Christmas truce, which is traditionally reciprocated by the rebels.

In Afghanistan there may be no truce, but US soldiers tramping back to base from muddy patrols through impoverished villages in biting temperatures are welcomed with Christmas trees, fairy lights and tinsel.

In Kandahar, one of the deadliest flashpoints in the war, Canadian Captain Glen Parent said carol singing, Christmas food with all the trimmings and church services will be laid on to create a home away from home.

In the capital Kabul, boutiques selling local embroidery and trinkets do a roaring trade as expatriate aid workers stock up on presents before flying home for the festive season.

But children in Japan are unlikely to be on the receiving end of any of those gifts if Green Santa gets his way.

"The green Santa Claus does not necessarily give out gift boxes to children, but he tells them how precious the natural environment is," said Shoko Ito, director of the Green Santa Foundation.

"Instead of giving gift boxes, he promises children a peaceful and beautiful Christmas time in the future," Ito said.

The group, which deploys a traditional Santa with a long white beard but clad in a green outfit, raises funds to conserve forests and gives lectures on environmental issues at schools.

In South Korea, by contrast, children eagerly await Christmas Eve when parents -- whether among the country's 13.7 million Christians or not -- shower them with gifts in the name of Santa Claus.

Residents of the southwestern city of Jeonju will also be watching to see if a secret Santa -- who has donated more than 81 million won (69,500 dollars) since 2000 -- will visit again this year.

He has regularly left donations for needy residents -- phoning in anonymous tips about where the cash can be found -- but has never been spotted, local media report.

In communist Vietnam, with about six million Catholics in a population of 86 million, some churches in the capital Hanoi have been brightly decorated with lights and red bunting and carols can be heard in the evenings.

But the commercial side of the festival has also made its mark. Outside one bar a giant Santa stands on a bed of fluffy fake snow -- clutching to his belly a monstrous can of beer.

Glitzy Hong Kong, however, has produced a real live Santa who in a recent competition in northern Sweden beat contestants from around the world in the traditional skills of chimney climbing, gift wrapping and reindeer racing.

A jubilant Jimmy Chan, a 44-year-old magician who had never seen snow before the contest and does not speak much English, wished everyone "Happy Christmas" in Cantonese on Swedish television.

While Chinese New Year may be Hong Kong's biggest celebration, the former British colony still celebrates Christmas with gusto a dozen years after its return to China.

The city is festooned with Christmas lights, carols are inescapable in malls and office buildings and some retail workers -- possibly against their will -- have taken to wearing red Santa hats.

Other former British colonies also find space for Christmas festivities decades after winning their independence and despite Christians being in the minority.

Multicultural Malaysia, which enthusiastically celebrates Muslim, Christian, Chinese and Hindu festivals, is now festooned with tinsel, fake snow, and shopping centre tableaux of gingerbread houses and Christmas trees.

The population, which includes Muslim Malays and ethnic Chinese and Indians, is in the midst of a months-long series of festivals which begins with Ramadan and ends with Chinese New Year in February.

India's Christian minority -- which at 2.3 percent of the population is still a sizeable 24 million people -- has celebrated Christmas openly in the majority Hindu nation for centuries.

In neighbouring Muslim Pakistan, however, the small Christian community in eastern Gojra is still reeling from August 1 riots, when an angry mob set upon Christian homes and churches, torching buildings and killing seven people.

Christians make up less than three percent of Pakistan's 167 million population, and are generally impoverished and marginalised.

But Gojra's local priest Father Shabir said he hoped Christmas would signal a new start for their small community.

"All our community is waiting for this first Christmas after the sad incident this August to start a new life. We are still sad, but we want to give a new message of hope on this Christmas," he told AFP.

Christians in northern China are also facing a Christmas of fear after 10 local religious leaders were jailed in recent weeks and their new church shuttered amid a crackdown on unauthorised worship.

China officially provides for freedom of religion but in practice the ruling Communist Party restricts independent worship by forcing groups to register with the government.

Despite the problems Christians can face, businesses in China have latched onto Christmas as a fashionable, commercial venture as living standards have risen and contact with the West has increased.

Many shops in Beijing are decked out with decorations and trees, and some waitresses in Chinese restaurants have started wearing Santa hats -- and, yes, Jingle Bells jangles nerves in the malls there too.

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