Asia’s frenetic mosaic of cultures can be seen in the festivals it celebrates during the winter months in December, January and February. These include some of the biggest events of the year: the Lunar New Year celebration is held throughout East and Southeast Asia; and even Western holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve have been adopted by local communities.
Use this list of winter festivals to plan your trip – or plan around them, as the case may be, as many of these festivals will limit transportation and accommodations and increase prices. It’s all up to you: either plan your travel dates around them, or get there early enough that they won’t disrupt your plans.
February to March: Panagbenga Festival
Panagbenga is a flower festival in Baguio City, celebrated from early February to early March. “Panagbenga” means “blooming time” in the Kankanaey language, which belongs to the indigenous ethnic group of the northern Philippines.
Panagbenga Festival was created in 1996 to help the city overcome the aftermath of the 1990 Luzon earthquake. The festival’s parade of floats was intended to boost tourism during the slow time of year. The festival showcases the natural beauty and traditions of Baguio and the Cordilleras.
Baguio Blooms Exposition and Exhibition takes place in Burnham Park, around a skating rink and picnic area. The main highlights of the festival are the Grand Float Parade and the Grand Street Dance Parade which takes place in early March.
In Asia, Christmas is not just for Christians; many people of all religions observe the Christmas season on December 25.
Christmas trees and decorations appear weeks before December 25 in metropolitan shopping malls and even in some public squares. Major metropolises such as Singapore, Bangkok in Thailand and Tokyo in Japan go all out to decorate with candy, snowflakes and Christmas trees.
Japan, for example, celebrates Christmas as a second Valentine’s Day, more of a romantic than a religious holiday, with gifts exchanged between sweethearts.
Asia’s largest and most predominantly Christian country, the Philippines, celebrates Christmas in a Latin style (due to having been colonized by Spain for 300 years); churches throughout the country are filled with devotees celebrating Mass before returning home to their extended families to celebrate the midnight feast known as Noche Buena.
December To March: Festival Of Illumination At The Garden Of Morning Calm
The Garden of Morning Calm, Garden of Morning Calm, in Gapyeong County, is a day trip from Seoul, the capital of South Korea; it is already worth the trip on any day, but becomes a must-see during the Illumination Festival in winter.
The lights of the Quiet Morning Garden occupy some 330,000 square meters, using 30,000 colorful LED lights hanging from trees and other gardens in the area. Stroll through the fairy wonderland created by the colorful lights, through such evocatively named fields as Hakyung Garden, Bonsai Garden, Moonlight Garden and Garden of Eden.
January: Shogatsu (New Year)
The Japanese New Year festival (December 31 to January 2), known as Shogatsu, is one of the most important events in Japan. This celebration has virtually replaced the Chinese-style Lunar New Year celebration as the “official” New Year celebration in Japan.
Many establishments close for the holiday (something tourists should be aware of); people gather with family and friends to celebrate and give children bundles of money called otoshidama.
Temples see an increase in visitors during the New Year, as the Japanese follow a local tradition called hatsumoude, or making a New Year’s visit to a temple to pray for safety, good fortune and good health.
The Shogatsu festival concludes with a speech by the Emperor of Japan on January 2. The day is one of two days of the year when the general public can enter the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (the other is the Emperor’s birthday).
January 26: Republic Day Of India
Republic Day is one of India’s few secular national holidays. Not to be confused with Independence Day on August 15, Republic Day celebrates the adoption of the Constitution of India.
Many businesses close to observe the patriotic holiday, alcohol sales stop and colorful parades fill the streets. The Republic Day Parade in Delhi, India’s capital, is a huge event, involving contingents of the Indian Armed Forces and floats representing each of India’s states.
Celebrations take place in the rest of India along the same lines: Kolkata, West Bengal, holds a military parade on Red Road in front of Fort William in Kolkata’s Maidan; Chennai, Tamil Nadu attracts parade participants from the armed forces, school marching bands and state police; and similar parades also take place in Bangalore, Karnataka and Mumbai in Maharashtra.
January/February: Harbin Ice Festival
Millions of tourists visit this ice festival in northern China every year, attracted by the huge ice sculptures that adorn the fairgrounds along Harbin’s Songhua River.
The sculptures, ice palaces, mazes and slides at the Harbin Ice Festival are simply massive in scale, built from some 260,000 cubic meters of ice blocks harvested from the river. They range in size from life-size carvings of animals and fantastical creatures to massive 250-foot structures towering over the crowd.
However, there’s much more to do than gawk at the ice formations: you can join fairs, ride ice slides or watch bizarre competitions such as winter swimmers braving the cold in sub-zero temperatures and swimming in their underpants in the Songhua River.
January/February: Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year (more commonly known as Chinese New Year) is by no means just a Chinese celebration; it is observed around Asia with much preparation and excitement. Locals revel with family and friends, observing old traditions to bring good fortune and prosperity in the coming year.
The entire Lunar New Year celebration lasts about 15 days, from the opening salvos on New Year’s Eve to the Chap Goh Mei at the end. Tourists may want to avoid traveling at this time, as millions of people travel home to be with their families or head to Asia’s best vacation destinations.
The Hindu festival of Thaipusam in January or February celebrates Lord Murugan, the Tamil god of war. Some devotees pierce their bodies with swords, spikes and hooks while carrying heavy shrines (kavadis) on their bodies through long processions.
Thaipusam is celebrated by Tamil Hindu communities from Southeast Asia to California. Malaysia and Singapore are home to some of the largest celebrations.
At the Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, millions of spectators gather for a daylong celebration in which scores of spiked devotees climb the cave’s 272 steps to show their devotion to their Lord.
February: Sapporo Snow Festival
Japan’s largest winter festival is held in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, in early February. Since its first iteration in 1950, the Sapporo Snow Festival has expanded in size and scope.
The Festival covers two main venues in Sapporo. The Odori Park centerpiece features some 100 ice sculptures of all sizes, dazzlingly illuminated at dusk. The Susukino district site features a smaller scale of ice sculptures decorating the city’s red light district.
The sculptures cover animals both real and fantastical, including anime-based creatures such as Pokemon. Beyond the icy statuary, visitors can enjoy snow mazes, street food, musical performances and skating at the ice rink near Odori Park.
Setsubun, one of Japan’s strangest festivals, is about throwing beans to ward off evil spirits.
People gather at temples to collect roasted soybeans, known in the local language as fuku mame (fortune beans). In public places such as temples and shrines, people throw the beans for good luck, shouting Oni-wa-soto (Away with evil demons!) and Fuku-wa-uchi (Enter with good fortune!). The Japanese believe that people can ensure health and happiness if they recover and eat fuku mame in a number that matches their age.
At public celebrations, gifts and sweets are thrown to frenzied crowds from stages. Celebrities, sumo wrestlers and other figures take to the stage to throw objects into the crowd at televised events.
In private homes, the head of the household wears a demon mask while family members throw beans and peanuts at him until he is chased away.
February/March: Taiwan Sky Lantern Festivals
Lantern festivals are an important part of the Chinese New Year calendar, and Taiwan offers some of the most colorful. The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is Taiwan’s most visited lantern festival, illuminating the skies of its small namesake village with floating lanterns bearing messages to the gods.
Its counterpart in Yangshui district favors a noisier illumination: the Tainan Yanshui (meaning fireworks beehive) fireworks show takes place at Tainan’s Wumiao Temple, where locals dare to be hit by small fireworks as a test of their strength and to ward off evil.
The two celebrations take place simultaneously and are associated in the minds of Taiwanese: they refer to the twin festivals as “fireworks in the south, lanterns in the north”.