Even with three to four years cumulative time living in Thailand, I am still not used to how different Christmas is here when compared to the U.S. It is different not only in terms of how the culture in general "celebrates" the holiday, but also how Christmas is celebrated at church and in the family.
Christmas in Thai Culture
Thailand is over 90% Buddhist so December 25th is just a normal working day like any other day. Buddhists don't celebrate Christmas - that is unless you own a department store or mall and want to get on the Christmas consumerism bandwagon. Because Christmas in the West is barely a religious holiday anymore, all that most Thai people know about Christmas is Santa Claus, gifts, Christmas tree, reindeer, and snow. And, of course, that Christmas is a foreign holiday, and therefore not for Thai people. But because of all the superficial hoopla in the West, many Thai people see Christmas as a fascinating curiosity. The big malls (which there aren't many of outside of Bangkok) put up some tinsel, sell Santa hats and fake Xmas trees, and have special sales, advertised, not as a Christmas sale, but something like "Amazing Gift Festival". And, like in the West, some Thai people find it fun to get on the superficial commercialized Christmas bandwagon. However, there is little to no knowledge about the true meaning of Christmas in this nation of Buddhists that has less than one percent Christians.
Christmas in Thai Churches
Many Thai churches (or at least the majority that I have seen) view Christmas as primarily an evangelistic opportunity - and with good reason. Many Thai Buddhists who would otherwise be completely uninterested in Christianity, will come to a Christmas celebration/outreach out of curiosity about this "Western" phenomenon. Christmas is a good opportunity to seize upon people's natural interest in the holiday in order to explain the true meaning of Christmas. Below are a few pictures from the Christmas outreach at PhraBaht church (apologies for the poor photo quality). The evening program included music, a buffet meal, games & prizes, and an evangelistic message about Christmas.
Something that amazes me about Christmas in Thai churches is that it seems to be viewed as an evangelistic opportunity over and above a time for church members themselves to pause and reflect upon the wonder and meaning of Christ's incarnation. In all the churches I've been involved with back home, Christmas is mostly an "in house" celebration for the faithful, and only secondarily an evangelistic opportunity for non-believers. Certainly, Christmas is an opportunity for evangelism no matter where you are, but it seems to me that it should not be exclusively evangelistic. I realize that the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a human tradition and not a mandated holy day like the Sabbath so we would be hard pressed to find Scriptural regulations regarding Christmas (other than the normal Scriptural regulations for the church's worship in general). However, because of tradition and experience, I must confess that I really miss the Advent season and the solemn, yet joyful, church Christmas service that leads the faithful to reflect upon and celebrate Christ's incarnation, and the wonders of God's amazing grace that He would send his Son into the world to live and die for wretched and unworthy sinners.
However, although our family did miss some of the church Christmas traditions, hymns, and so forth we are used to back home in the States, we did take the opportunity to do some Christmas evangelism in our neighborhood. It wasn't anything all that big or complicated but we merely wrapped up some tins of cookies, stuck a bow and a Thai tract about the true meaning of Christmas on top, and handed them out to some of our neighbors. We visited maybe four or five homes near us, chatted for a while, gave our gift and tract, and invited them to come to the Christmas outreach at the PhraBaht church.
We were excited that five of the people that we invited to the Christmas outreach actually came. We were disappointed that they all left before Pastor Jarun gave the evangelistic message. We were told that the service/outreach began at 5 pm so we showed up at 5 and our guests shortly thereafter. However, since this is Thailand, we should have known that the program wouldn't really get started in earnest until 6:30 or so. Our guests left shortly before Pastor Jarun got up to give his evangelistic message a bit after 7 o'clock. We'll know for next year, I guess.
Christmas in the Family
In the U.S., Christmas is in large part a family holiday and many families exchange gifts, sing carols together, have a Christmas meal, read the nativity story together, or whatever else it is that their family does together. Not so here. From what we can gather, Thai Christians don't celebrate Christmas at home with their families. No tree. No gifts. No nativity. No special family get togethers. No carols. Maybe there are some families who do celebrate Christmas at home but I can't think of any except for the one family that sent us a Christmas card once. We asked Muay, who helps us with housework a few days a week, "So, how does your family celebrate Christmas at home?" She answered bluntly, "We don't. We just go to church." I suppose there is nothing Scripturally that says a family has to have Christmas traditions but I would think that if a Christian family were reading Scripture and praying together regularly, they would have at least some kind of Christmas devotions/reflections together as a family. But that brings up the issue that many Christian families don't read and pray together, the husband and wife don't pray together, and nobody is taking much responsibility for the children's spiritual nurture. I think that is probably true for the West just as much as it is for Thailand, unfortunately. Our own family is still relatively young, but this year we've started to take some baby steps in establishing some Christmas traditions that will help us focus upon Christ as the Christmas season approaches. It is much harder to do this in Thailand, however, because (with the exceptions of the big shopping centers), the culture ignores Christmas and thus there are none of the cultural signposts and reminders that Christmas is coming.