“Do your people celebrate Christmas?” asked a gym fellow while we were in a hot tub together one morning. When you go to the gym and see the same face over and over, you feel comfortable with that person. After months of running into each other at the gym, we started acknowledging each other and having small talk during our breaks.

His name is Matt, and he is in his early 60s. His friendly gesture reminds me of my own folks back home in Thailand. So, I feel comfortable carrying on a social conversation with him.

“Oh, I forgot to ask! Where are you from? Are you Cambodian?” asked Matt one day. He is not the only one who can’t tell the difference between Thais and Cambodians. There is no offense in this.

“Well, Matt, unlike Filipinos that have historically been Christians, most Thais are Buddhists and celebrate all occasions.” I finally replied to Matt, as he wondered what Buddhists would do during Christmas time. Most Thais embrace and enjoy this fun and family-oriented religious tradition of Christmas, as Buddhism supports anything that values goodness and kindness.

What do most Thais do during Christmas? Well, it depends where they are. Back in our country, there might be gathering for lunch at work, where a lot of companies allow a late lunch celebration in the office, or getting together for dinner at a restaurant. No gifts are exchanged though until New Year. And businesses open as usual with Christmas decorations displayed mostly at public spaces, or in common rooms.

Here in the U.S., many Thais work in restaurants, both self-employed and as employees.

“We close our restaurants for a day to join with our relatives for Christmas meal. No one opens the restaurant on Christmas!” Picha Pinkaow, a co-owner of three Thai restaurants–Wann Yen, Thai Curry Simple, and Emerald Thai Cuisine–responded when asked about her business plan during the holidays.

Zapver, an upcoming Thai restaurant in Fremont, along with Bang Bar in West Seattle, which shares the same owner, closed for Christmas as well. It opened later only for their family and friends for their annual gathering.

Working in the food service industry, employees cannot take several day trips. With heavy traffic during the holiday season, Thais tend to avoid the crowd on the road, but rather join the crowds with familiar faces, and take advantage of what is offered in town.

Ken, a Thai bartender at West Seattle-based Buddha Ruksa restaurant said he stayed put and took it easy during Christmas.

“I would just clean the house and hang out,” Aae, Ken’s colleague, joined with our conversation as their lunch patrons started leaving. “Every day off, I prefer cleaning the house and doing laundry.”

Aae (left) and Ken (right) at Buddha Ruksa restaurant in West Seattle. Photo by P. Leephan-Williams.

They were talking about staying put where they were, but they did not mean to avoid any social gatherings with friends and colleagues. Thais love to celebrate and find an excuse to hold a party, from birthdays, to job promotions, or even for a small lottery win. When they do, plenty of traditional and spicy food and beverages will be provided.

Some went to the Thai temple, bringing food to the monks (called “making merit” or tham-boon) on Christmas. There are three main temples in Woodinville, Auburn, and in Olympia, which open daily to everyone. Food and water are prepared by faithful Thai patrons and donors. Food sharing is part of Buddhist beliefs of doing good deeds, or tham-dee, and kindness practices.

The most anticipated holiday for Thais is New Year. There are increasing numbers of Buddhist Thais that prefer to spend New Year’s Eve at a temple than going to a party. White attires are advised. Devout participants usually show up at the temple by 9:00pm. They start their prayers by 10:00pm, and it lasts about 30 minutes for one round. The chanting is supposed to run 9 times. In Thai, the number nine refers to progression and prosperity. There are breaks after each cycle for water and snacks.

Patrons participating in a mind-cleansing ceremony at the Wat Washington Buddhavanaram temple in Auburn on New Year’s Eve. Photo by Bhante Prapan Lukmun.

They believe the practice helps cleanse their mind and spirit, bringing in the New Year. The next morning on New Year’s Day, these same people, joined by other dedicated believers, come back to the temple to tham-boon despite getting little sleep from long hours of prayers and/or partying.

Thais always find a chance to get together, or to party. They had just celebrated National Children’s Day over the weekend on the second Saturday of January. It mostly involves food and temple visits, including field trips to the zoo and government buildings.

Here is a short note to those who have Thai friends: besides a bouquet of flowers, bring only a big smile and a warm hug with you when you are invited to a party. Not only will you have more than enough food to choose from, taking some leftovers home will delight a Thai host. Just be careful for hot chilies disguising itself in a charming-looking dish!

Spicy Thai chilies. Photo by P. Leephan-Williams.
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