Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holiday Series Day One: Happy Merry Christmas, Thailand!

                You know what I like? Christmas music.
                Yes, it’s that time a year again. Whether you’re Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, the holidays are here, and there’s absolutely no escape, especially on this blog. That’s because we, as in all three of us, will be bringing you, as in all three of you who read this blog, information about how the month of December is celebrated around the world. We’ll be looking at twelve countries in total. Why twelve? For the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, obviously. Happy year of the snake everyone!
I have had it with this year!
                Today I’ll be beginning things with the country I studied abroad in, Thailand. You’re probably thinking that Thailand is a majority Buddhist country that doesn’t believe in Christmas, and you’re absolutely right. But that hasn’t stopped us Americans from celebrating St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo, right? In the spirit of fun, you’ll find many stores embellished with fancy Christmas decorations that would put a lot of Americans to shame. Around the same time, you’ll also see many strings of yellow lights lining the streets, and lots of the color yellow in general. The yellow is for a celebration that the Thai people take very seriously, the birthday of their king. We’ll get into that later.

                So why does Christmas have any sort of presence at all? There is the aforementioned spirit of fun, just as in the United States, in addition to the spirit of money, just as in the United States. Regarding the former, Thais are able to celebrate a major Christian holiday in the spirit of fun thanks to Buddhism, which tolerates other religions. This pairs wonderfully with the Thai concept of “sanuk” [link]. Usually translated as fun, it means to strive for enjoyment in everything you do, a concept I can definitely get behind. Most of what we associate with Christmas is, in reality, pretty fun, so of course it would catch on.

                Money also plays a major role in Thai Christmas celebrations. Just like so-called “Hallmark holidays” here in the U.S., Christmas in Thailand is poised to generate a lot of money for the shop owners that decorate with Christmas trees and tinsel. Some of the decorations are so spectacular that people will come to the store specifically to see them. And while they’re there? They spend money on whatever the store sells, of course. They might even purchase a gift for someone else if they really get into the spirit. And that’s just for the native Thais.

                Thailand generates more of its GDP from tourism than any other Asian nation, and as such engages in many activities to encourage others from abroad to visit. December is already a prime season for tourism, as it is not too hot, not cold at all, and with little rain [link]. Adding Christmas flair into the mix definitely gives visitors something else to write home about. Additionally, it may ease some homesickness for those feeling bad about being away from home during the holidays. Finally, it makes shopping for Christmas gifts for friends and family back home even more fun.

                How does one celebrate Christmas in Thailand? For many expats and even some Thai families, the answer is to start by grabbing a Christmas tree. They can be found at places such as Tesco Lotus, which is to Thailand what Walmart is to the United States. CNN travel [link] has a list of things to do for Christmas in Thailand, a highlight of which is a recommendation to go ice skating.
Taken at Sub Zero Ice Skate Club-My friend Dillon with his personal ice-skating tutor.

Fun fact: The only time in the past twenty years I have been ice skating was last fall in Bangkok, at the Sub Zero Ice Skate Club in the Esplanade Mall. We had just finished a rousing game of full-contact bowling and decided we had to give the building's skate rink a shot. And how was it? Pretty fun! It wasn't all that cold in there, maybe slightly cooler than most air-conditioned rooms in Thailand. Not nearly as cold as a rink here in the States would be, which definitely affected the quality of the ice. The floor was incredibly uneven, and pools of water were everywhere. Still, if one really wants to get into the Christmas spirit, skating here or at one of Bangkok's other rinks is a great way to do it.

There's another great way to cool off in the spirit of Christmas that does far more to invoke the winter wonderland of Wisconsin, and that's Snow Town, a part of the Dream World Theme Park in Bangkok. In Snow Town, children of all ages can sled, throw snowballs, make snowmen, and see an igloo. Best of all, they can meet Santa in his snow house! Apparently. Definitely the most Christmas-y experience one can have in Thailand.

Christmas somewhat blends into the New Years celebration for Thais, but the start of the calendar year is a much bigger celebration for them than Christmas. Though the traditional Thai New Year is celebrated in April with the Songkran Water Festival, December 31st is celebrated in a very similar fashion to the United States. Countdown events abound, with music, fireworks, and general merriment. It is also a time when Thai workers in Bangkok will travel to their home provinces, meaning buses and hotels will be very packed around this time. Buddhists will take this time to make merit at temples, reflect on the past year and wish for luck in the year ahead.

Throughout the month of December, Thais will celebrate the birthday of their king. King Bhumipol Aduladej was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 5th, 1927 while his father, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, was enrolled in the Public Health program at Harvard. So, here's a couple of fun facts. Fact one, the school I studied abroad at, Mahidol University International College, is part of Mahidol University, named after the current king's father. Fact number two, both the current king and his father were international education alumni! The current king received most of his education in Switzerland. So I guess what I'm saying is if you study abroad you may some day be king, especially if you're in line for the throne.
The King of Thailand

How do Thais celebrate the birthday of the king? I mentioned earlier strings of yellow lights everywhere, which occasionally dwarf even the over-the-top Christmas decorations. Yellow flags and flowers adorn virtually every home and business. December 5th is really three holidays in one. In addition to celebrating the king, it is also used to celebrate Thailand in general. It's their 4th of July, essentially, complete with fireworks. And the third holiday? As the king is considered the father of the nation, December 5th is also celebrated as Father's Day. Much like in the United States, Father's Day is used to show respect to one's own father, and fathers in general.

For the last few years, the king has been in poor health. He was finally released from the hospital in August. Prior to that, though, he would briefly leave the hospital for rare public appearances, such as his annual address to the public on his birthday. Thousands of Thais come to be in the presence of the king, wearing yellow. Yellow, symbolizing the day of the week the king was born, has come to represent not only the king, but a contentious political movement as well. That's a huge issue I'm not going to get into, but if you're curious, Google is available to you.

So that's it for day one of our holiday series. Tomorrow we'll have Hannah with a fantastic post on the holidays in the country that both she and King Bhumipol Aduladej studied in, Switzerland! It's gonna be a good time. The festivities resume after Thanksgiving Break on Monday with Holly and Burkina Faso! Fun AND entertaining!

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