Christmas is widely celebrated in Asia. But is it seen as a secular holiday imported from the West or a religious one?
CT spoke with seven theologians and church leaders from Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam to find out how Christmas is regarded in their contexts, the unique traditions that take place, and how evangelicals celebrate the birth of Christ there.
Responses range from people who acknowledge and accept the Westernized, commercialized nature of Christmas in their countries to those who rally against such misconceptions and others who see it in a more religious light.
Taiwan: Wen-Chuan Lin, assistant professor of church music at Taiwan Graduate School of Theology
Christmas is known as a Western holiday to the general public in Taiwan. Because it is heavily influenced by its highly commercialized image from Western media and enterprises, such as the Black Friday sales, Christmas has been celebrated here as a holiday that comes with grand shopping events and fancy meals at fine restaurants.
Christians in Taiwan observe Christmas differently by viewing it as an opportunity to share the gospel. Theologically speaking, the celebration of the birth of Jesus should surely not be labeled as a “Western” event. However, when considering the historical development of liturgy and how this festival was introduced to Taiwan by missionaries from the West over a period of time, the “Western” image of Christmas seems indelible.
Personally, I do not mind using or improvising some Western elements for Christmas celebrations, whether in musical presentations, vigils, or caroling. However, I always suggest that churches ought to remove or downplay elements that have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, or gift exchanges.
Some churches will purchase Taiwanese-style Christmas cakes as gifts to share the good news in their neighborhoods. Churches can focus more on spreading the meaning of Jesus’ birth and second coming to remind people why Christians should celebrate Christmas. They can also carry out activities like feeding the hungry, aiding seniors and the disabled, and visiting the ill and imprisoned to incarnate Christmas into our current context.
Malaysia: Kar Yong Lim, New Testament Studies lecturer at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia
Christmas is a public holiday and celebrations are very commercially driven in West Malaysia. There are Christmas sales and lavish festive decorations such as Christmas trees and reindeer in major shopping malls. Christmas lights also brighten up the skies above major streets in shopping areas and public parks. Restaurants capitalize on the festive season by offering special Christmas menus.
Seen from this perspective, Christmas here is no different from how it is being celebrated in Western countries. Perhaps the only difference is that as a tropical country, we do not have winter and snow.
Churches typically hold Christmas and Christmas Eve services, often with an evangelistic focus. Some local traditions are also incorporated while celebrating Christmas here. Popular Christmas songs and carols have been translated into local languages. I have also seen ethnic Chinese Christians giving apples as Christmas gifts to family and friends. The Mandarin word for apple sounds like peace, and it is a creative way to declare that Jesus himself is the Prince of Peace.
In the states of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia, which have higher populations of Christians, there are Christmas parades and open-air performances organized by churches in major urban areas, which are attended by everyone, not only Christians. In general, Muslims do not participate in Christmas celebrations, but there is greater public participation in Christmas festivities in East Malaysia.
Japan: Mieko Iwata, associate professor of Christian ethics at Tokyo Christian University
Christmas in Japan is fully established as a Japanese festival, although it is recognized as an event of Western origin. By the Taisho era (1912–1926), Santa Claus was already known, and historical documents show that children looked forward to receiving Christmas presents.
In Japan, Christmas is considered a day spent with lovers and friends because of media portrayals that have painted it as an occasion for a romantic night out. Couples typically have dinner together and give each other gifts. Families gather on the night of December 24 instead. A Christmas Eve dinner without chicken and cake is unthinkable in Japan, probably because of the success of Kentucky Fried Chicken and cake company promotions.
Christian churches in Japan promote Christmas as a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but since ordinary Japanese people may not be curious about the meaning of Christmas, it is difficult to change their perception of Christmas as a “Western” event.
Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, and services are typically held on the Sunday closest to Christmas. Many evangelical Japanese churches sing Western Christmas hymns like “Silent Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Joy to the World.”
This year, my church will have an hourlong candlelight service on the evening of December 24 (not because it is Christmas Eve, but because it is a Saturday and therefore easier to gather). We will light candles in the chapel, sing Christmas hymns, read Bible verses, hear a message from our pastor, and close the service with children playing handbells to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”
South Korea: Chiheon Shin, pastor at City Center Church
The perception that Christmas is a “Western” or foreign holiday in Korea remains because there are other traditional holidays, like Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Mid-Autumn Festival), in our calendar.
Christmas in Korea is celebrated in kindergartens, schools, private academies, and in families, but it is often recognized as a day when Santa Claus gives gifts to kids. Also, it is considered a day for young people to confess their feelings to someone or go on a date, like on Valentine’s Day.
Since there are other traditional holidays to spend time with family, evangelical Christians in Korea often spend Christmas with their church family or with their marginalized neighbors. Churches may hold Christmas Eve services or visit the homes of the elderly in the church. They may also visit poor and underprivileged neighbors in the city to deliver Christmas messages and gifts. Churches also work together across denominations and hold various events in the city, such as Christian plays, musicals, and singing praise songs while busking on the streets.
As a church planter and a pastor for international migrants living in Korea, I’m strongly convinced that evangelical Christians in Korea should live out the incarnational life of Jesus Christ in deeper and wider ways in our lives and our acts of service.
J. I. Packer writes in Knowing God: “So the ‘Christmas spirit’ means reproducing in human lives the temper of him who for our sakes became poor. … The Christmas spirit is rather that of those who, like their Master, live their lives on the principle of making themselves poor, spending and being spent, to do good to others and not just their own friends.”
We need to impoverish ourselves voluntarily to reach out to our neighbors who are marginalized, lonely, and discriminated against in society, including immigrants who have recently entered Korea. That is how we can contextualize Christmas and remove the misconception that it is a “Western” event.
Mongolia: Bat-Orgil Gantumur, pastor of Light of Grace Christian Congregation
Christmas is not an official holiday in Mongolia. Most nonbelievers see it as a “Western” event and call it “candle month,” a name which is adapted from Buddhism as some Buddhist monks say that it is the first month of winter.
One hundred years ago, foreign missionaries from western Europe came to Mongolia and showed us how Christmas is celebrated. After that, Mongolia became a communist country for 80 years. During that time, Russia brought in certain secular practices like setting up Christmas trees and getting gifts from Santa Claus. Mongolia is now a democratic country and religious freedom is prized here. One religion does not supersede another, and while we are a Buddhist-majority country, Mongolians largely do not express negative sentiments toward other religions like Christianity.
Having these “Western” influences at Christmastime is not a bad thing, and they do not have a negative effect on these celebrations. Still, I don’t think we should allow the perception that Christmas is a “Western” event to continue. We should improve this perception locally as the Mongolian church grows to learn how to contextualize Christmas to our particular context.
There has been some progress on this front, although we have a long way to go. Four years ago, churches worked together to put up Christmas plays and concerts across the country. Churches in Mongolia are also encouraging locals to compose worship songs about Jesus’ birth. One popular Mongolian Christmas song that is often sung is “God So Loved,” which is based on John 3:16. Another popular praise song is “He Love,” which has lyrics like “Love that has been waiting for a thousand years / Comes to us through the darkness.”
Pakistan: Ruby Naeem John, codirector of Bethel Evangelistic Organization
Christmas is viewed as a Western holiday rather than a Christian festival by Muslims, even though the church has been present in Pakistan for the last 75 years.
Evangelical Christians in Pakistan celebrate and observe Christmas the way we have been taught by missionaries. We decorate our houses and churches like what is seen in English movies. We sing English carols, exchange gifts with friends and family, decorate Christmas trees, and put up nativity scenes.
But we also have some contextualized Christmas traditions. We sing Christmas carols in the Punjabi and Urdu languages and use local instruments like the tabla (small drum) and dholak (two-headed hand drum) in them. Another common practice is that choirs will visit different houses the week before Christmas and celebrate it with families. Hospitality is a great virtue in my country, and in some villages, people even accommodate these choirs in their homes and provide food for them.
The perception of Christmas, and Christianity, as “Western” has arisen because the Pakistani church has failed to become more mission-minded. Many believers left Pakistan back in the ’70s and ’80s and settled in the West. When religious persecution grew, many Christians fled and became asylum seekers in the West as well.
Pakistani Christians need to gain a sense of ownership over their faith. The church in Pakistan is going through a historic chapter right now. Since a great number of missionaries have been kicked out from the country systematically, many institutions are now led by the locals.
We need local theologians who can read Biblical texts through their lens. We need to understand the concept of intergenerational leadership and let all generations participate in evangelism and discipleship. Only then can we remove certain misconceptions about Christianity and Christmas.
Vietnam: Saralen Tran, lecturer in Christian education at Hanoi Bible College
Christmas is not recognized by the Vietnamese government as an official holiday, but rather a religious event. Workplaces and schools operate as usual. The last week of December is the busiest time for enterprises to close the year and to make final deals while school children take their final exams.
However, like in other countries, Christmas is celebrated as a feast. Shopping malls, restaurants, and other public places are nicely decorated. Also, people often gather on big streets or city corners on Christmas Eve. Recently, growing international cooperation among businesses have raised demand for Christmas to be recognized as a holiday, but the communist government is still considering it as it has religious significance.
Nowadays, Vietnamese Christians attend church services that run for two days and nights. One of these services is a distinctive and well-structured program by which non-Christians are invited to hear the gospel through Christmas stories. It is usually a big gathering at churches on Christmas Eve, and church choirs and music bands often prepare for these events at least three months in advance.
Outreach events also occur during Christmastime. On December 3, churches from the Christian and Missionary Alliance organized a large-scale mass evangelistic gathering at an outdoor venue in Ho Chi Minh City, where approximately 500 people came forward to accept Christ.