Christmas spirit awaits Pope Francis in Thailand

Although most Thais understand little about Christianity, Buddhism teaches them to respect all religions
Christmas spirit awaits Pope Francis in Thailand

A rubber Santa is on display at a Bangkok shopping mall. The commercial aspect of Christmas is celebrated by Thais, not its spiritual message. (Photo: Tibor Krausz/ucanews)

When Pope Francis arrives in Bangkok on Nov. 20 for his visit to Thailand, he might be pleased to see much of the predominantly Buddhist nation’s capital swathed in a cheerful veneer of the Christmas spirit.

The Christian holiday is still several weeks away, yet Christmas trees have already started sprouting up inside stores and outside malls around Bangkok.

Yuletide decorations, complete with wreaths and pine cones, are appearing in shop windows. Even at the city’s numerous Starbucks outlets coffee now comes in red cups featuring a Christmas theme. Festive songs like “Jingle Bells” are being played on department store sound systems. 

Yet appearances can be deceptive. Despite Thais Buddhists’ penchant for Christmas, the holiday is celebrated here simply as a feel-good festival with no religious undertones. It’s the commercial aspect of Christmas that dominates, not its spiritual message.

In fact, most Thais know little about the religious meaning of Christmas. They also understand little about Christianity, routinely confusing Santa Claus, whose image becomes ubiquitous every December, with Jesus Christ, who is far less prominently displayed.

“I know Santa is important for Christians because he brings gifts to children and rewards good people,” says Monchanok Sodsriwiboon, a university student who is a Buddhist. “I’m not sure what the full story is, though. Is he like a god?”

Monchanok is sipping a cold latte at a table beside a plastic Christmas tree at a café inside a Bangkok mall, which is right next to a sports stadium where Pope Francis will officiate at an open-air Mass for thousands of people on Nov. 21.

“I’ve heard of Jesus, but to be honest I don’t know much about him,” the student adds.

Christmas decorations are on display outside a shopping mall in central Bangkok near where Pope Francis will officiate at an open-air Mass on Nov. 21. (Photo: Tibor Krausz/ucanews)

Hilltribe communities

Pope Francis’ visit to Thailand might help bring Christian practices and beliefs into sharper focus.

Despite the centuries-long presence of Christianity in the Southeast Asian nation, believers of the faith account for barely more than one per cent of the population. Catholics number fewer than 400,000, representing 0.58 percent of the population in a country of 69 million. They belong to 11 dioceses.

The Vatican’s efforts for an organized mission in Thailand began in 1659 when Propaganda Fide wanted a missionary group to take up evangelization work that Padroado had started four decades earlier. In 1663, Missions Etrangeres de Paris (MEP) was formed to actualize a mission directly under the Vatican.

Although Christians have long been free to worship and proselytize in Thailand, the religion has had relatively little success in gaining new adherents outside hilltribe communities in the mountainous north where missionaries converted animist tribespeople in decades past.

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“Most of the growth of the Church has been in northern Thailand among minority tribal peoples: Karen, Lisu, Lahu and Akha,” explains Prof. Kelly M. Hilderbrand, an expert in intercultural education who is a visiting scholar at the Bangkok Bible Seminary.

“In major metropolitan areas like Bangkok, ethnically Chinese people have been the most open [to Christianity].”

Christianity has been tolerated by Buddhist Thais but is routinely viewed by them as a foreign creed that is somehow not really Thai and is thus inimical to true “Thainess,” experts like Hilderbrand say.

“Buddhism and Thainess are not easily separated. Males find it even more difficult,” Hilderbrand says.

“Part of the respect shown to [one’s] family is to become an ordained monk for a short time in early adulthood. This brings merit to the mother and enables her to enter into a better rebirth. When one becomes a Christian, that person disconnects from ritual and this decision impacts the whole family and community.”

It’s unlikely that Pope Francis’ visit will change that mindset, but he will surely not have come in vain.

Thais are rolling out the red carpet for the pontiff, who is following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who visited Thailand in 1984.

Pope Francis is scheduled to meet both the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch at Wat Ratchabophit and His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn, who is treated as semi-divine in a country where the monarchy occupies a central role.

“Buddhism teaches us that we need to respect all religions,” says Phra Sompas Thammananto, a Buddhist monk who lives at a monastery in Bangkok. “Your beliefs matter much less than your good deeds.”

Ultimately, Pope Francis will be visiting Thailand, at least in part, not in order to try and entice local Buddhists into embracing Christianity but to help fortify local Catholics in their faith. 

In May, Pope Francis wrote to the Thai Church to congratulate it on the 350th anniversary of its official founding in the Buddhist nation.

“I pray that you may grow in holiness and continue to work in the spread of Christ’s kingdom by fostering solidarity, fraternity and the desire for goodness, truth and justice in your beloved country,” the pope wrote.

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