Thursday, December 5, 2013

Christmas in Bhutan

Throughout December in Australia is Christmas season. Although technically Christmas is just one day, December 25th, we really celebrate throughout the whole of the month. Barely a day goes by without a Christmas party, Carols by Candlelight or get-together with friends to celebrate the 'silly season' and the end of the year.

For Bhutanese readers it may come as a surprise that for many families like ours, Christmas is not a religious celebration but rather our favourite cultural celebration that is just part of being Australian.

I love this time of year at home and I go to a lot of effort to make it special for my family. In past years I've started in November making decorations and cards, buying and making gifts for the large extended family, and wrapping them in colour-coordinated paper. To make special memories for my boys I've made advent calendars with daily messages that encourage us to do a special Christmas related activity for every day in December leading up to the big day. We especially love going to see the Christmas lights and joining our family for the Carols in Broadbeach.

This year from far away in Bhutan I'm kept in touch with all this Christmas excitement through facebook posts of friends marking the big moments of the season: putting up the tree, having a Santa photo taken and end of school parties. 

In all honesty I couldn't feel further away from Christmas if I tried, and surprisingly, as a  Christmas lover, I am really enjoying the break! Christmas is a lot of work and it's probably very bah-humbug of me to say, but it is liberating to not get carried away in all the festivities this year!

We do have a very simple (but real!) Christmas tree that we've decorated and a very simple hand-drawn advent calendar. Surprisingly we are also being visited daily by a cheeky elf who finds his way to Bhutan from the North Pole every night (as per the Elf on the Shelf tradition). So there is still a bit of Christmas for the boys to enjoy.

We made nativity decorations for the school library (from materials sent from a friend in the USA).
After reading some Christmas stories the children were fascinated and asked for a Christmas party to end the year.
There was no shortage of helpers to decorate the tree!
Dechen creatively made a heart-tree-bell decoration with coloured pipe cleaners - all great symbols for Christmas.

I've been inspired this year by how the Bhutanese celebrate special occasions. There has been no lead up or hype in advance of any of the big days. No decorating a month (or more!) in advance and most certainly no shops decorated three months in advance of the day and cashing in on the commercial opportunity. For Vishwakarma Puja it was lovely to see one of our local shops selling tinsel and streamers to decorate cars just one day before the day. I shook my head in wonder at how simple this was and not out of proportion like the whole Christmas extravaganza at home.

From the 8th of December we will be on the road travelling in Bhutan until we leave on December 22nd. We'll take our little advent calendar with us to cross off the day each morning. All going well our elf will come along for the adventure. I'll be interested to see if there are any signs of Christmas in Thimphu, but in all honesty I won't be surprised if there's not. Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist country, although I've heard that there is a minority group of Christians here. Maybe the tourist hotels will have a decoration or two, maybe not?

I've no doubt when we stop down in Bangkok for two days (Dec 22nd and 23rd) that there will be Christmas decorations and lights to enjoy. This will get us in the mood for the big day.

We plan to be in Penang, Malaysia on the big day. We won't be with family and friends, so it will be different. The boys will be happy as long as the big man in red delivers something special to our hotel room. I've found a special place for us to spend the day: Tropical Spice Garden - with lush gardens of spices to explore, a big fun playground and a restaurant serving Thai food overlooking the ocean.

I love how the boys haven't even asked for anything yet - they are not immersed in advertising and the 'I want' culture and its not a bad thing. Soon I'll get them to email Santa (can you imagine how long it would take a letter to get from Bhutan to the North Pole!!!!) and see what they would like.

It will be an unconventional Christmas season for us, but I'm enjoying the differences and trying to keep little special references like the elf and the advent calendar to remind us that it's the end of the year. I've no doubt that I'll be in full spirit for Christmas 2014 to make up for anything we've missed this year.

We are thinking of everyone at home and missing you and the parties and gatherings that we'd normally be enjoying. May you all experience peace and happiness at Christmas!


  1. A very good observation on 'no decorating in advance' for a festive season in Bhutan. Whether it's a trait in us (the Bhutanese) or we are simply one plain lazy breed, we never see any decoration in advance in any occasion in Bhutan, weird? I know its that you have pointed it out here in the blog I feel even weird.

    Now that, you have reminded me, I'm a little guilty here,I need to lighten up my home for Christmas. The minority Christians in Bhutan believe in Christ but sadly doesn't know the traditions of advent leading to the BIG Day.

    Wow, you have such a grand plan for the Big Day....I wish you a great festive season to you and the family this Christmas. Merry Christmas.

    1. Thank you Rekha! I think is it a wonderful thing that the Bhutanese don't get all hyped up about special occasions in advance! It is an example of how your country hasn't become commercialised yet and its refreshing. Christmas in Australia and otehr western countries has become a big commercial enterprise and the real meaniing of the season - love, peace, happiness is lost. Season's Greetings to you Rekha xxx

  2. Yes, we are in the thick of it here! But it's exciting for us as it's the first Christmas we are spending in our own house, with a tree (we have never had a tree before!) with our family of four. You will have a wonderful day, some of my most memorable Christmas's have been spent overseas :)

    1. Its a special time for you - your first Christmas as a 'complete' family - and home among family and friends. I am happy to miss out on the hype and stress of Christmas but of course am missing all the good stuff. No doubt it will be memorable - it will be good to get to BKK and Malaysia where we'll see Xmas trees and it will feel a bit more special. Looking forward to next Christmas already!