For most European countries and especially the United States, the month of December is a call for the celebration of Christmas. Big holiday feasts are prepared, Christmas trees and other ornaments are put up, gifts are exchanged, and families and friends get together. What many may not realize is that December is a month of celebrations for many Asian countries as well. While Christmas may not be celebrated as a Christian holiday like with most of the U.S. and Europe, the day and season are certainly recognized and enjoyed in a unique style with different Asian countries. In addition to Christmas, several Asian countries have other holidays and festivals to celebrate during the month of December.
Unbestknown to most people is the fact that Christmas is an official holiday in South Korea, which may be attributed to its large Christian population. Like the U.S., nevertheless, many of the festivities of the season center around the church and include such activities as pageant-plays, services on Christmas Eve, and caroling in which it is customary to offer snacks and hot drinks to those singing at your door.
Many homes, restaurants, and malls are decorated in a Christmas fashion and display Christmas-themed merchandise. A Korean Christmas tree may also be found in many homes which is decorated with such adornments as the Bo Sun, a white, stocking-like ornament made of satin, as well as Bok Choo Mo Ney, or colorful little money pockets or purses with which young children collect money from elders.
The day is spent with a gathering of family and friends with gift exchanges and festive dinners. A popular Christmas meal for many Koreans might include hot duk (rice cake soup), sides of kimchi (various spicy pickled vegetables), as well as tangerines and other sweets.
Before Christmas, Koreans celebrate another holiday called Dongji or Winter Solstice day on December 22. Dongji is the shortest day of the year in that daylight appears least during this day. Traditionally, Koreans made and exchanged calendars on this day for preparation for the upcoming new year. Another custom observed on this day is that of eating red beans. While prepared in may forms, such as buns with red bean paste, red beans have traditionally been consumed in a porridge-like dish. The red color of the beans also symbolize 'bright light' which is believed to ward off the evil spirits lurking in the long, dark hours of the winter day.
While Christmas is particularly celebrated by the Chinese Christian population, many of the major cities and areas, especially Hong Kong, recognize the day and engage in festive activities. For many Christians and non-Christians, Christmas is referred to as Shang Dan Jiang or “Holy Birth Festival.” There is even a Chinese version of Santa Clause known as Dun Che Lao Ren which literally translates to “Christmas Old Man.” Like most of the Western world, the Chinese children who celebrate Christmas also hang up stockings in the hopes that Dun Che Lao Ren will visit and leave little gifts for those who've behaved well throughout the year.
Seasonal decorations can be seen throughout major metropolitan cities particularly in shopping areas and restaurants. Another holiday decoration that may be seen in some homes or shopping areas is a Chinese version of a Christmas tree which features many different ornaments that symbolize certain values and virtues. For example, bells symbolize a way to “sing out” and connect with a greater power.
A typical Chinese Christmas dinner for those who celebrate usually includes roast barbecued pork, chicken, soup, and wood ears. While many families also choose to eat out for special meals, either way, the day is celebrated with the getting together of friends and family.
Boxing Day is also observed in China, on the 26th, as an official holiday in which people exchange gifts or boxes.
Like China, Japan has a relatively small Christian population, however, with its increasing Westernization and liking for things American, Christmas has certainly become a popular event for many. Usually with the beginning of December, Christmas decorations and themes can be seen just about everywhere in Japan but particularly in shopping areas, restaurants, along streets, and on local television shows. As the Japanese have a very commercialized culture and love to shop, an American might just feel right at home in Japan's many shopping districts which feature a plethora of Christmas decorations, hundreds of gift ideas, toys, Christmas themed foods, bright lights and music that will get anyone in the Christmas spirit.
Japan as well has a version of Santa Clause who is known as Hoteiosho. More like St. Nicholas, Hoteiosho is an old man priest who carries a big a sack upon his back and brings gifts to the homes of good children. Unlike the Western Santa, however, Hoteiosho also has eyes in the back of his head to make sure children behave throughout the year. The Japanese also enjoy their version of Christmas trees. While six-foot firs probably won't be found in most homes, tiny trees or even bon sai are decorated in the Christmas fashion but uniquely include a Japanese touch with chimes, paper fans, and even tangerines as ornaments.
For many Japanese, Christmas day is spent exchanging gifts with family and friends much like Americans do. In addition to Christmas, the Japanese observe Seibo which is a period of gift giving to those who have helped; it commonly takes place in the middle of December. Instead of a large festive dinner of turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce, however, the Japanese are content with eating other American food--particularly fried chicken and french fries. Special Christmas cakes and other Japanese treats such as mochi, a type of pounded rice cake, are typical of the Japanese Christmas meal.
The Japanese celebrate another day in December called Tenno Tanjo-no-Hi or the Emperor's birthday which is on the 23rd.
As one of the only predominantly Christian countries in Asia, Christmas is the most festive and celebrated holiday in the Philippines. Christmas festivities and activities begin weeks before Christmas day and primarily involve the church. Pageants and plays are held in reinactment of the nativity scene and a special mass particularly observed by the Catholics, called Misa de Gallo, is held at midnight at the beginning of Christmas day. After this mass, many return home to commence in the Midnight Feast in which prayers are said and many special sweets and treats are eaten.
Big feasts and meals are characteristic of many Filipino celebrations and especially for Christmas. Instead of turkey with gravy and potatoes, nevertheless, the Filipino Christmas usually includes lechon- a whole roasted pig, pancit-different noodle dishes, all sorts of desserts such as malagkit-sticky rice cake, cassava cake, as well as many other types of dishes.
Having been greatly influenced by the U.S. and as a predominantly English-speaking nation, it is no surprise that many of the other Christmas traditions and practices of the Filipinos are quite the same. Family and friends spend the holiday weeks and Christmas day together and exchange gifts. Christmas decorations and lights appear in many neighborhoods and especially in shopping areas, restaurants, and public places. The Filipinos also display a unique Christmas decoration called the Parol or Christmas lantern which is usually star-shaped and brightly colored. Another Filipino style tradition is to sing “Maligayang Pasko”, meaning “Merry Christmas”, to the tune of “Happy Birthday” which is commonly heard by carolers along the streets.
With a small Christian population like many Asian countries, Vietnam's celebration of Christmas is mainly observed by Christians though it is also commercially recognized. Like the majority of Filipinos, many of these Vietnamese attend a midnight mass at church. As well, they return home to enjoy a Christmas feast which typically includes chicken soup and Christmas pudding. Some children also believe in Santa Claus and leave their shoes out on Christmas eve with the same intentions of American children who put stockings up for treats.
In addition to Christmas, many Southeast Asian countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, celebrate another big holiday called Hari Raya Puasa. Also known as the End of Ramadan, this period of celebration occurs on the 6th and 7th of December. Fasting from sun up to sun down is practiced by followers in the previous holy period of Ramadan.
If you'd like to celebrate the holidays of December with an Asian touch, try some of these popular December-time recipes:
Red Bean Porridge for the Korean Winter Solstice
- Red Beans
- Sticky rice powder
1) Place red beans in a bowl with water and soak for about an hour
2) After an hour, drain the beans and peel the skin
3) Boil water in a pot and add the beans; add a little salt
4) Begin making round balls with the sticky rice powder (with a little water)
5) Add the rice and sticky rice balls into the pot
6) After a few minutes, add some honey
Malagkit (Sticky Rice Cake w/ Caramel) Filipino holiday dessert
-2 cups sweet rice (biko)
-3/4 cup brown sugar
-3 ½ cup diluted coconut milkTopping:
-1 can condensed milk
-3/4 cup rich coconut milk
-1/8 lb. butter or margarine
-2 to 3 teaspoons of flour (for thickening)
1) Boil rice, coconut milk, and sugar in a large pot or in a rice cooker; continue to stir occasionally so that rice texture will be uniform.
2) Transfer mixture into a square or round shallow container, packing tightly and spreading evenly; smooth top with a spatula.
3) To prepare topping, condensed milk, margarine, and rich coconut milk in a small non-stick pan; cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boiling point.
4) Stir in flour mixture, stirring fast until topping sauce has thickened and is smooth. Spread topping on cooked rice evenly.
5) Place baking container in oven and brown top under broiler at 350 degrees for 3-5 min. until golden brown but not burnt.
Cassava Cake Filipino holiday dessert
-2 cups coarsely grated cassava
-1 egg, slightly beaten
-1 cup white sugar
-2 tablespoons margarine or butter
-1 cup condensed milkTopping:
-1/2 cup brown sugar
-1/2 cup thick condensed milk
1) Mix and combine all ingredients
2) Preheat oven to 350 F
3) Pour mixture in greased foil pan or square/rectangle glass baking dish
4) Bake for 20 minutes or until almost firm
5) For topping, mix the brown sugar and condensed milk in a small pan and stir over medium heat
6) Pour and spread topping over cassava and bake for another 25 minutes
Chinese Roast Chicken
- 1 cup soy sauce
- 6 tbsp. red wine
- 4 1/2 tbsp. hoisin sauce
- Pinch of garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp. pepper (black)
- Chicken, cut into pieces
1) Mix all the ingredients together without the chicken
2) In a container with lid or large plastic bag, place chicken and sauce (the ingredients just mixed)
3) Marinate the chicken for desired length of time; can be marinated over night or for an hour in the fridge
4) Place chicken in baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, turning once.
5) Serve with rice and enjoy!
Mochi: Japanese sweet treat
- 1 cup mochiko sweet rice flour
- 1 cup potato flour (katakuriko)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup water
1) Mix together mochiko, sugar, and salt
2) Stir in water to form soft dough.
3) Lightly knead dough on board dusted with a little potato flour
4) Place dough in steamer tray lined with dampened unbleached muslin or several layers of cheesecloth.
5) Spread dough evenly over dampened cloth, about 1/2" thick.
6) Steam 20 minutes.
7) Remove steamer tray from pan.
8) Pull cloth away from dough, and place on flat surface dusted with katakuriko.
9) Cool dough for about 1-2 minutes.
10) While still hot, roll dough into a long roll and cut into desired number of pieces
11) Sprinkle with katakuriko to prevent sticking.
12) Form into ball and enjoy!