Bangkok Gets Into the Christmas Spirit

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Rungroj Yongrit / EPA

A shopper walks past Christmas decorations at a shopping centre in Bangkok.

There may not be much by way of snow to carry Santa's sleigh in Thailand, and the ubiquitous saffron-robed monks and golden-spired temples are a reminder that this a predominantly Buddhist country. But any visitor to Bangkok between October and January would have reason to be confused over the country's spiritual orientation, because the Thai capital embraces Christmas with a fervor that belies its reverence for Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. For Thais, of course, December 25 isn't a moment to celebrate the birth of Christ; it's simply a tinsel-festooned season to shop, set cellphone rings to "Deck the Halls" and feast on red-and-green hued sticky rice with coconut cream. (Of course, some Christian clerics fret that it's not all that different in the United States.) (See the top 10 things you didn't know about Christmas.)

In late October — rather late by Thai Christmas decoration standards — my local mall unveiled giant frosted angels at its entrance. On October 31, the angels were appropriately accoutered for Halloween, with pumpkins nestled in their arms. And when I visited the mall in early December, holiday hampers were on sale, featuring such traditional Christmas delights as Brand's Essence of Chicken, sardines in tomato sauce and Nescafé. A man dressed as Santa Claus greeted shoppers at the mall's entrance, his hands clasped prayerfully together in a wai, the traditional Thai greeting. Inexplicably, though, Saint Nick's Christmas entourage included Snow White, two dwarfs and Goofy.

By early December, the valet-parking attendants at our neighborhood brothel were sporting cheery Santa hats as they glided away in the Mercedes and BMWs of their Japanese and Korean clientele. (The working ladies sported fur-fringed red halter tops and hot pants.) And when the winter weather hits its chilliest, as it did last Christmas when residents barely survived a 70-degree cold snap, the street dog that lives near my home is festively adorned in a sweatshirt with golden angel wings stitched to the back. Down the street, her sister — or perhaps it's her mother, I'm not quite sure of the canine family tree — bundles up in a reindeer-emblazoned shirt. (See pictures of crazy Christmas traditions.)

Some Thai traditionalists decry the Christmas takeover of Bangkok as a symptom of both crass consumerism and a blind embrace of anything Western. It's a fair point: In a country with a growing rich-poor divide, the sight of wealthy Bangkok residents loading up on Christmas gifts doesn't exactly hew to a Buddhist sense of asceticism and detachment from worldly possessions. But the Thai mix-and-match attitude to faith extends to Buddhism as well. Although many Thais regularly visit temples, they also make sure to placate the animist spirits known as phi, which were worshipped long before Buddhism arrived in Thailand. Most homes in Bangkok have a spirit house on their grounds, a dollhouse-proportioned residence for the otherwordly denizens supposedly evicted when the human dwelling was constructed. Families placate the spirits daily with tasty offerings such as a bunch of bananas or a toothsome chunk of pork crackling.

Just before Christmas, I noticed that the spirit house at yet another mall in Bangkok was adorned not just with the usual garlands of jasmine and tiny plates of food, but also with a phalanx of miniature elephants, each of which wore a tiny Santa hat. Not even the phi miss out on Thailand's Christmas cheer.