Thailand, where Santa is the father of Jesus

BANGKOK, Thailand — These days, even Santa Claus outsources to Asia.

Here at Bangkok Christmas Decoration Exporters Ltd. — global supplier of synthetic trees, plastic reindeer and assorted Christmas kitsch — Thais in flip-flops have assumed the work of workshop elves.

If your tree-in-a-box reads “Made in Thailand,” it was likely assembled here. The company, currently swamped with orders, mostly exports to the Western world.

But business is booming here in part because of Thailand’s own infatuation with Christmas. The three sisters who own the company are seeing more orders from across town rather than across the sea.

“We’re exporting less and less. The malls here in Thailand want our business too,” said co-owner Vilaiwan Watsiriseree, who started the family business more than 20 years ago. “We’re the only company in Thailand that can make a 60-foot Christmas tree.”

As in past years, downtown Bangkok has now draped itself in a twinkling blanket of Christmas bric-a-brac. Glowing snowflakes and cartoon-sized plastic mistletoe are strung around the central train station. Shopping centers play synthesized renditions of “Little Drummer Boy” on a loop.

“Thais especially love Santa Claus,” Vilaiwan said. “He’s my best-selling item.”

But Thailand’s Christmas craze is largely aesthetic. Few kids in Bangkok know who Santa Claus is exactly. As for Jesus? Forget about it.

“Santa is Jesus’ daddy!” said Nashy Saeng-Xuto, out snapping photos with his family under a towering Christmas tree at Central World. And where does Nashy think Santa lives? “In heaven!”

“You know, the Thai Christmas doesn’t have anything to do with religion,” said Punyarudee Saeng-Xuto, Nashy’s slightly embarrassed mom. “It’s just something that’s fun for us.”

An ages-old trading crossroads, Thailand has long absorbed foreign customs. The cutlery is Western, the hit pop songs are Korean and even the prevailing Buddhist religion, followed by 95 percent of Thais, was once an ancient import from India.

But in this a la carte approach to adapting outside culture, the finer points of celebrations such as Christmas are sometimes lost in translation. My barber, for example, was recently stunned when I explained that Jesus’ mother was a human being.

And similar to religion, Bangkok’s flashy Christmas style is unrestrained by Western decorum. The Bangkok Christmas Decoration Exporters showroom, where Thais come to select their synthetic trees, would not look out of place in Willy Wonka’s factory.

In addition to traditional pine green, the trees come in tangerine, cotton candy pink, lemon-drop yellow and even licorice black. For 350 Thai baht, about $10.50, they’ll throw in their “Holiday Tree Pine Fragrance Real Scent Delivery System,” which can hang discretely from a plastic branch.

In mid-December, orders both domestic and foreign were keeping workers so busy that the owners cancelled weekly Buddhist meditation sessions, sometimes led on the factory floor by a local monk. Vilaiwan and her sisters, she explained, like to emphasize “good Buddhist practices” for employees.

Still, while many elements of Christmas are ignored here, Thais have definitely embraced the holiday’s fuzzy, feel-good cheery vibe. Many Bangkok Thais use Christmas as an excuse to gather relatives, swap gifts and share good times.

“Is Christmas supposed to be Jesus’ birthday? The day Christianity was born? I really don’t know,” said Chudapa Arkasripath, a 16-year-old out Christmas shopping with classmates. “But the meaning of Christmas, I think, is to share love, be with your family and then go party.”