Celebrating Christmas in South and Southeast Asia

Since Christians form a minority demographic on most of the Asian continent – particularly in the South and Southeast region – Christmas doesn’t quite draw the same traditional festivities as in Europe or America (not to mention the crowded shopping centres or boozy work parties).

However, it would be foolhardy to assume that Christmas isn’t celebrated whatsoever in the region.

Although the percentage of Christians by country in most of the region is in the single digits, the total number is nevertheless enormous, particularly in China and India. For example, while only five per cent of the Chinese population identifies as Christian, that still amounts to a total of over 67 million people (that’s more than the population of France).

Similarly, in India, Christians represent 2.3 per cent of the total population, making up almost 26.5 million people (equal to the total combined population of Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece).

So, while it won’t likely be a White Christmas in the region, countries still host a number of particular festive traditions and celebrations to mark the holiday. After all, culture and tradition permeate across all cultures as countries continue to open themselves up and the world gets increasingly smaller.

Here we’ve put together a list of the main traditions in the region’s largest countries:


It might seem somewhat ironic that the country that produces and exports the vast majority of Christmas decorations doesn’t typically celebrate the Holiday. In mainland China, December 25th is a working day like any other.

However, find yourself in major cities like Beijing or Shanghai and you’ll still find the streets decorated in lights and Christmas trees in a grandiose fashion that rivals New York or London. Indeed, China’s large international cities have clearly identified the potential for commercial success that comes with Christmas.

For the local population on China’s East Coast, Christmas is said to be “celebrated with interest”. However, the further Westwards and further away from the cities on travels, the sparser the Christmas celebrations become.

One of the most popular traditions among non-Christians is giving apples to relatives and loved ones. The reason being that Christmas Eve in Mandarin (pronounced Ping-An-Ye) sounds similar to the Chinese word for apple (“Ping Guo”).

Bonus fact: Because of their respective British and Portuguese influences and colonial pasts, Christmas and Boxing Day are public holidays in Hong Kong and Macau.


Although Christians only form a small minority of the population, India’s long history as a British colony has seen many traditions remain. This includes keeping Christmas Day as a public holiday.

So while it may though it may not be widely celebrated, at least in the traditional Christian manner, participation in Christmas activities is relatively high. Christmas Day in India is known as “Badaa Din” in the Northern and Northwestern parts of the country, which translates as ‘Big Day’

Otherwise, Christmas is celebrated in much the same manner as in Europe and the Americas, including attending the midnight mass (a ceremony enjoyed by plenty of non-Christians, as well) and eating and exchanging traditional Christmas treats, including plum cake and jujups.

Mistletoe, holly and pine trees aren’t too common on the sub-continent, so Christians in India decorate mango and banana trees, using their leaves as decorations.

The Philippines

In regards to Christian demographics, the Philippines is one the exceptions in the region, with Roman Catholics making up 86 per cent of the population. This is mainly due to its Spanish colonial influence.

Indeed, the country is known to have one of the longest-running and most lavish Christmas celebrations in the world. If you thought that hearing Christmas music in November was a little bit over the top, in the Philippines the first celebratory processions, masses and festivals begin as early as September, lasting into January.

This, in turn, has seen the country develop its own series of distinctive Christmas traditions. Perhaps the most widely known and celebrated is Simbang Gabi, a series of night-time masses held over nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile, lanterns made from bamboo and paper, known as ‘parols’ are as important to a Filipino as a Christmas tree in the Western world.

Lastly, like children in Britain hanging their stocking by the chimney, Filipino children polish their shoes and leave them by the window, so that the Three Kings will leave presents as they walk past.

South Korea

While the Chrisitan population of South Korea is sizeable, Christianity and Christmas are relatively new phenomena to the country.

While Catholic missionaries arrived in Korea in the last eighteenth century, the widespread proselytization of Christianity (namely Protestantism) only began approximately a century later in 1880. After restrictions on religious practice were introduced under Japanese colonial occupation, Christianity once again grew at an exponential rate in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Christmas in Korea is characterised by a Christmas cake, usually a sponge cake, which acts as the centrepiece for the Christmas meal.

However, celebrating Christmas comes second place to celebrating the new year, which is seen as more of a traditional family event.


While Japan is namely irreligious, with only two per cent of the population defining themselves as Christian, the country has established its very own Christmas. While there are no official holidays with schools and workplaces remaining open, Christmas Eve is recognised as a day for couples, in a similar fashion to Valentine’s Day.

However, one of the more peculiar traditions sees thousands of people flock to American fast-food chain KFC on Christmas Eve.

In 1974, KFC launched its “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign (translated as “Kentucky for Christmas!”). It was allegedly influenced after the company heard of a group of foreigners who couldn’t find a turkey on Christmas Day, settling instead for fried chicken.

The campaign has continued to this day because KFC was succeeded in making its brand synonymous with Christmas in Japan. While this has become cultural phenomena, KFC has also poured money into advertising during the Christmas period.

But don’t think that people are queuing up just for a bucket of chicken. KFC Japan’s Christmas menu also includes cake and champagne.