We have been traveling the world for almost three decades, and have had the privilege of celebrating the December holidays in both Western and Eastern cultures alike. One year we experienced four different New Years in a matter of months!
As those in Guatemala know, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus in the first seconds of Dec. 25 and throughout the day, and it is a high holy day revered in the church. However, countries with large Buddhist populations such as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are different. The story of Jesus’ birth by a virgin mother with the special star in the sky and the three kings following that star to the manger in Bethlehem holds no special significance to them. But all of these countries are more than willing to join a celebration, and they have adopted the Santa-Claus-and-his-reindeer-style of Christmas, as well as gift giving.
Mix this time of year with the Western New Year of Jan. 1, Chinese New Year in the middle of February, the Balinese Hindu New Year in the middle of March and the Thai Buddhist New Year in the middle of April, and one can find themselves making merry from Thanksgiving in November (a U.S. holiday) all the way through the spring.
Below we share some quick moments from our years of festivals and revelry in differing cultures.
In a Christian country such as Guatemala or Mexico, there would be no reason at all to celebrate Christmas without the birth of Christ. He IS the reason for the season. No Christ, no Christmas.
There are posada re-enactments of Joseph leading Mary riding a donkey searching for a room at the inn. Eventually they make their way to a Bethlehem-style manger, usually at the local cathedral. You will witness processions, shepherds, Christmas carols, angels, and a special bright star in the night leading the way for the three kings to bring expensive gifts the newborn child king.
With its deeply Catholic, post-conquest roots, Guatemala has plenty of Christmas trees, Santa’s elves and presents, but the primary focus is the birth of Jesus.
Vendors sell hand-made creches complete with hand-carved sheep, cows, statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and angels. The three kings riding camels, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the stable, are also for sale. Pine needles provide a carpet in front of stores and hotels welcoming guests, and wreathes made of chamomile all provide the familiar scent of Christmas.
Pozole is a traditional soup served on Christmas Eve in Mexico. In Chapala, Mexico, we were invited to a friend’s house to join the family for midnight dinner on the night before Christmas. Mama, with her full 4-foot, 7-inch frame standing on a ladder, stirred a huge pot of pozole on the stove with a wooden paddle large enough to power a canoe. She and the pot were about the same size! The entire family squeezed into the dining room, where botanas and bottles of tequila were on the table.
Just after midnight, the pozole was finished and ready to serve. Sliced radishes, shaved cabbage and shredded pork were added at the last moment to the hominy and soup broth, with squeezes of lime. Tortillas all around! A tasty tradition in Mexico.
Buddhist Thais celebrating Santa and his elves. Buddha was born 500 years before Christ, but that doesn’t prevent the Thais from joining in on the fun of a Western-style Christmas. They probably have no idea that Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicholas, a young man centuries ago in what is now present-day Turkey, who used his inheritance to help the poor and sick. Their experience of Santa is from the Coca-Cola ads with the polar bear.
No matter, they’re all in. The Thais have a great sense of fun, called “sanook.” If there is a way to smile, be entertaining and participate in some festivities, they are first on the scene.
Songkran, Thai New Year
In mid-April there is an observance of the Buddhist New Year with a water cleansing. Traditionally, one pours water respectfully over the hands of the elders in the community, and clearing out of the home from the old year is done. These modern days, the celebration of Songkran has become a water festival, complete with buckets of water and fully loaded water pistols.
In Chiang Mai, the town gets into the drama and excitement, and if you are on the street, you can expect to be drenched in a matter of minutes. Protect your digital equipment and wrap your important papers such as your passport in plastic. Then walk the streets, purchase a bucket or water gun and join in the fun with total abandon.
The BEST coconut-encrusted onion rings. In Luang Prabang, Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River, we celebrated the Christmas season by walking the twinkly lighted streets. Lovers and friends ambled arm-in-arm while Christmas music wafted through the night air. We chose an open-air, street-side restaurant to watch passers-by while we had an evening snack.
Coconut-coated, deep-fried onion rings served with a sweet, spicy chili sauce was something new to us and unforgettable. Crisp to perfection, we have never had them anywhere else!
Even though cultures differ around the globe, throughout the Christmas season the idea of kindness toward mankind and sharing wealth and friendship with others prevail.
Good will to all and peace on Earth.
About the Authors
Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance, medical tourism and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their website RetireEarlyLifestyle.com, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. They wrote the popular books The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible, which are available on their website bookstore or on Amazon.com.