Finding Christmas Culture in Asia and Asian America

In Texas, Christmas time is tamales time. The grocery stores have this festive and somewhat addictive (ok it’s just me) Latino dish which I learned is a celebratory dish from multiple Latin cultures.

While it has nothing to do with Christmas, it is often seen as a traditional Christmas dish for many Mexican American households. It got me thinking about whether there are any Asian American Christian contributions to Christmas. When I think about it, I only remember eating traditional Korean foods on Christmas, maybe with some baked ham or another “American” dish to mix things up. And in my popular media recollection, there’s the hilarious depiction in the classic bit from A Christmas Story of the white Indiana family that winds up at a Chinese restaurant due to a number of stressful preceding events – watch it, it’s a good one (as long as such movies don’t actually stress you out).

This question about Asian American Christian Christmas culture was on my mind when I looked at the new Pew report that Brad Wright mentioned in a previous post. More than 285 million people in Asia claim a Christian background. Commissioned by the Pew Research Centers this massive undertaking is hopefully as accurate as one can get with survey instruments. The Asian continent covers 48 nations and includes a number of island nations from Japan to Papua New Guinea to the Philippines. Since I study Asian American religion, I was interested in the distribution of Christianity in the places where many Asian immigrants in the US come from. Why is this important? Aren’t all Asians the same? Actually no, they’re not, especially when it comes to religion. And part of this puzzle is explained by the immigrant generation’s country of origin and that nation’s religious composition. And as I noted in an earlier post about 2/3 of the Asian American population is actually foreign-born (using the figures in the previous link, it’s more like 72% may be foreign-born). Where are they coming from? The largest six origins have been (and remain the same since 1990): China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan – all told, 75% of Asian America, both foreign-born and US born fit into one of these groups and not one ethnic group takes up more than 23% of the total.

So with this distribution in mind, I turned back to the Pew figures on Christianity in Asia and the Pacific. Let’s start with the big regional picture. 285 million people in the Asian-Pacific region are Christian. That’s a lot of people, especially since the US population is just a little over 300 million now. But as you can see in the infographic, Christians only account for 7% of the Asia-Pacific region population of over 4.1 billion. This points to an important difference we should always be aware of: numerical size and proportional size.

As you can see on this table of the Asian-Pacific countries with the largest presence of Christians, the largest numerical population of Christians is in the Philippines at almost 87 million. Put differently there are 6 times as many Christians in the Philippines than there are Asian Americans (every group combined) in the US. There are more Christians in the Philippines than there are Latinos in the US – that’s a lot of Christians! In fact numerically the top three Christian populations in Asia follow the top three populations of the Asian American population: the Philippines, China and India. From this numerical perspective, since the largest numerical presence of Christians are also the top-three sending nations from Asia, we might expect that the Asian American Christians would be dominated (in order) by Filipino, Chinese and Indian Christians.

But large numbers don’t always tell the full story. For example, while there are an estimated 67 million Chinese Christians in the Republic of China, that’s only 5 percent of the entire nation. In India, only 3 percent of the nation is Christian, even though that equals almost 32 million people. In Vietnam it’s 8%. This is what we call a low proportional presence of Christians as opposed to a high numerical presence. So from this perspective, we would expect that very few Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese immigrants would be Christian, and we would expect the vast majority of Filipinos to be Christian. (FYI the interactive map gives figures for Japanese Christians and they are less Christian than the Indian population at about 2%). And we would expect more than a quarter of the Korean immigrants would be Christian. Since only 1 of the top six sending Asian nations is predominantly Christian we would expect that a small proportion of Asian immigrants would be Christian. But that’s not the case either. Sociologist Fenggang Yang for example has pointed out that many Chinese immigrants convert upon arrival to the United States through support they receive from earlier Chinese Christian immigrants who work together in ethnic churches. On top of that, in places like Korea, Christians are more inclined to take the plunge and immigrate more so than their Buddhist and non-Christian counterparts.

So when it comes to Asian American Christian Christmas culture, we may not have immediate access to it at the mainstream grocery store, but in thriving ethnic Christian churches, particularly Filipino ones, we may see some important variations and perhaps completely unique traditions and customs that make up the cultural diversity of American Christianity. Do any readers know of any Asian ethnic Christmas traditions? Inquiring minds wanna know.

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  • Thomas R

    Although I shouldn’t be posting on Christmas day, looking it up the Philippines has something called “Simbang Gabi”, which is a series of Masses. It sounds like they also have foods linked to it. The following article mentions just traditional foods.

    Here’s something from the Philippines on how they do it there.

    And I saw mention of it in Vienna of all places.

    I know of various Marian festivals Vietnamese Americans do, but I don’t think I recall a Christmas one oddly enough.

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks for these links Thomas, yes I did a couple of google searches and found that Filipino Christians might be the only Asian Christian group I know of that has a unique tradition for Christmas. The other sites which are English-friendly play up their modern sensibilities that copy the western mode of Christmas celebrations.

      • Thomas R

        I think the Philippines was “officially” or majority Christian a lot longer than most any Asian nation. (I’m not counting Lebanon for these purposes) So it might make sense they’d have more.

        I’d think the Timorese maybe would too as they are similarly Christian for a similar period of history. However I don’t think the US has a big Timorese community and I didn’t find much distinctive there.