Americans tend to think of themselves as some of the greatest celebrators and holiday decorators around, and I admit I’ve felt that way from time to time, but there are a lot of countries that really have us beat.
I’ve celebrated a lot of different holidays in a lot of different places. It never gets less strange seeing palm trees decorated with ornaments or jungle huts strung with tinsel. I’ve celebrated the biggies all over. I’ve done Christmas in Sweden and Australia, put together makeshift Thanksgivings in Ecuador and Australia, and rung in the New Year in Thailand, Sweden and Australia. I’ve also had the fortune to witness the celebrations of countless unique local holidays in other parts of the world. And I always try to get as involved as I can, whether it’s checking out bull fights and riding party buses during Founder’s Day festivities in Quito or wearing a crown of flowers, eating herring and drinking schnapps for Midsommar in Sweden.
There are different ways to bring the holidays alive. The thing that separates countries like the US and Australia from what I consider to be even more festive countries like Thailand and Peru is this: we go all gung ho for our own holidays, but in other countries they go all gung ho for ALL holidays. In the States we go over the top to decorate every public place and every home for, say, Christmas. (Australia, from my experience, seemed to go more over the top in public but less so on a personal level as in decorating their own homes.)
But let’s look at Thailand, for example. I arrived in Bangkok a few days after Christmas. Being a Buddhist country, Christmas is not technically a holiday you’d expect Thais to celebrate. However, everyone (I mean everyone!) everywhere (at every store, fast food restaurant, etc.) was wearing Santa hats. Every place was decorated up with Christmas decorations. It was crazy. They just love holidays. Then, when it comes to a holiday that is actually more a part of their culture, they really know how to have fun. I got to experience Songkran, both in the small town where I lived and in the crazy packed downtown of Bangkok.
Basically, Songkran is awesome. Everyone is happy and laughing and having a great time. Everyone is throwing water at everyone else, they don’t care who you are, and having a blast. Everyone is smearing white paint on everyone else. It’s wet and paint-y and crowded as hell, but so so much fun. And in the midst of the madness downtown there’s music and entertainment and tons and tons of soaked people having a great time.
One of the other days of Songkran I went to Chatuchak, the huge market on the fringes of Bangkok. A lot of foreigners crowd the markets to shop, so at first it seemed like there wasn’t a big Songkran atmosphere. But then a truck full of kids with water guns and buckets of water drove by and went after everyone. Then I found a secret water gun seller in a back part of the market and armed myself. Immediately I could feel the excitement rise and the locals having more fun as a farang (foreigner) joined the activities. I supersoak-battled with the kids of shop owners and made regular refill visits to my new older friend whose stall was near a water spigot. By the end of the day I was soaked and having the time of my life.
But back to the original thought, about countries like Thailand celebrating holidays that aren’t really even a part of their culture. I had a similar experience in Lima, Peru. It was Halloween, which outside of the States is now growing in celebration but is still not really a big thing. I don’t think people in Peru really know exactly what Halloween is, or that kids go around trick-or-treating, but they definitely did remember the day! I found that many people working in shops and restaurants around the city were wearing funny hats or even fully dressed in costume on the day of Halloween. It was a great surprise! I mean, really, even in the States you don’t usually see people actually dressed up at work (even if they work somewhere more relaxed like a fast food restaurant or cafe). But these people in Peru, they just wanted to celebrate and have fun and dress up and do something a little different and festive. Any excuse for that is great, even if it’s a borrowed holiday you don’t actually know that much about.
Maybe part of it is our pervasive culture. Everyone else knows about our holidays because we put out movies and TV shows and other media pushing out the ideas of Christmas and Halloween. But really, these cultures just like to have fun and celebrate. (The concept of sanuk or fun is a central and important one in Thai culture.) We take it all too seriously. We decorate like crazy, trying to outdo our neighbors or other cities. But we don’t get the most important part about festivity: feeling it and embracing it on a personal level. Kids get it. They dress up to go to school on Halloween even if they aren’t supposed to. Heck, if they could they’d dress up in a costume every day for school. Halloween is just a good excuse. It’s just like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day or pastel or a big hat or bunny ears on Easter. It’s fun to remember that it’s a special day worth having a bit of celebratory fun on, whatever the reason may be.