Thursday, December 6, 2001

Remember Christmas in Thailand

Published in the Current

In Thailand, Christmas isn’t the national holiday it is here in the U.S. In the mostly Buddhist country, only a small percentage of people are Christians. But the Rev. Phil Gage said the country is increasingly embracing the commercial aspects of the holiday.

“You hear Christmas carols, you see Christmas lights,” on the streets of the major cities, he said. Part of that is because the king’s birthday is Dec. 5, and that is a cause for great national celebration.

Christmas, he said, “sort of fits right into that.”

Gage, now the pastor of Scarborough’s Free Baptist Church at Eight Corners, and his wife spent 25 years as missionaries in Thailand.

They were there for four years at a stretch before returning home to the U.S. for a year of traveling to speak at various churches.

They served as spiritual advisers to villagers, city-dwellers and other missionaries, and helped make Christmas a special time.

“Here we’d normally gather as families,” Gage said. In Thailand, “people come together and celebrate as a church family.”

Many Christians in Thailand are not estranged from their Buddhist families, Gage said, but they have big church community events to celebrate the holiday.

There are pageants, caroling and worship. And while Christians make up less than five percent of the population of Thailand, they travel to the houses of church members, singing and having fun at each home. One year, Gage said, they took two minivans and started caroling at 10 p.m. They finished the next morning at 5 a.m., when they ate a giant meal of boiled rice with all sorts of side dishes, a favorite Thai meal.

The Thais don’t tend to exchange gifts, but they will give each other cards, Gage said. And decorations aren’t the same as we would expect. “It is more apt to be the traditional sort of decoration,” Gage said.

In his time in Thailand, Gage traveled all over the country. Some tribal groups, he said, have converted to Christianity en masse, but in a way that has allowed them to retain tribal customs.

Before they became Christian, they would hold large parties for each new year, but would get drunk and fights would erupt.

After they became Christian, they stopped having the celebrations for a time, but realized they missed dressing up in traditional costumes and doing their dances and other cultural performances. So they decided to have their traditional celebrations but substituted tea for the alcohol, making the events more peaceable.

Thais, he said, tend to focus more on people and relationships than on material objects the way Americans do, especially around the holidays, but Gage has also seen parallels between Thai Christmas celebrations and the way his church members observe the occasion.

“(Thais) will act out the birth of Christ a lot,” he said. Recently some of the members of his church wanted to do a live nativity scene outside the church. “That really clicked with me,” Gage said.

But Thais also will bring their own culture to church. “They would perform their cultural dances,” he said, as well as songs.

Like in the U.S., Thai holiday church services often feature children performing.

Gage and his wife adopted two Thai children, who are now 30 and 25. Gage became a grandfather for the fourth time Nov. 30, when his daughter gave birth to his first granddaughter in Massachusetts.

His daughter, Missy, makes crèches for the holidays, including a special Maine themed one, with a fisherman and woodsman, among other figures. She also makes crèches or ornaments that she gives to each family in Gage’s church during Advent.

And now, back in the states, Gage has an easier time decorating his home and the church as well. Over there, he said, “you had to really be creative in terms of decorating.”

But even so, lights and candles were common, and through the 1980s more and more Christmas decorations came to Thailand, appearing in storefronts and advertisements, primarily in cities around the Buddhist nation.