Asia’s frantic patchwork of cultures can be seen in the holidays it celebrates throughout the winter months, in December, January, and February. These include some of the biggest biggest events of the year: the Lunar New Year celebration takes place throughout East and Southeast Asia; and even western holidays like Christmas and New Year's Eve have been co-opted 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 tie up transport and accommodations and drive up prices. It’s all up to you: either plan your travel dates around them, or arrive early enough to jump into the fray!
In Asia, Christmas isn’t just for Christians—many people of all religions observe the Yuletide season on December 25.
Christmas trees and decorations pop up weeks prior to December 25 in metropolitan shopping malls and even in some public squares. Major metropolises like Singapore, Bangkok in Thailand, and Tokyo in Japan pull out all the stops, decorating with candy, snowflakes and Christmas trees.
Japan, for example, celebrates Christmas as a second Valentine’s Day—more a romantic holiday than a religious one, with gifts traded between sweethearts.
The biggest predominantly Christian country in Asia—the Philippines—celebrates Christmas with a Latin flair (thanks to their having been colonized by Spain for 300 years); churches all around the country are filled with devotees celebrating Mass before going home to their extended families to celebrate the midnight feast known as the Noche Buena.
- Where: Throughout Asia
- When: December 25
The Garden of Morning Calm in Gapyeong County is a day-trip away from South Korea’s capital Seoul—it’s already worth the trip on any given day, but it becomes a must-see during the Lighting Festival in winter.
The lights of the Garden of Morning Calm spans some 330,000 square meters, using 30,000 colorful LED lights hanging from the trees and other foliage around the area. Wander around the fairy-like wonderland created by the colorful lights—through such evocatively named fields like Hakyung Garden, Bonsai Garden, Moonlight Garden, and the Garden of Eden.
- Where: Gapyeong County, South Korea
- When: December to Mid-March
The Japanese New Year festival (December 31 to January 2), known as Shogatsu, is one of the biggest events in Japan. This celebration has practically superseded the Chinese-style Lunar New Year celebration as Japan’s “official” New Year celebration.
Many establishments close for the holidays (something tourists should note); people gather with family and friends to celebrate, and give children money packets called otoshidama.
The temples see a surge of visitors during the New Year, as Japanese follow a local traditiona called hatsumoude, or making a New Year 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 a year the general public is allowed inside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (the other is the Emperor’s birthday, which now takes place on February 23).
- Where: Throughout Japan
- When: December 31 to January 2
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 India’s constitution.
Many businesses close to observe the patriotic holiday, alcohol sales stop, and colorful parades fill the streets. The Republic Day Parade in the Indian capital Delhi is a huge event, featuring marching contingents from the Indian Armed Forces and floats representing each of India’s states.
Celebrations ensue in the rest of India in much the same vein: Kolkata, West Bengal holds a military parade down Red Road in front of Fort William in Kolkata's Maidan; Chennai, Tamil Nadu draws in 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.
- Where: All throughout India
- When: January 26
January/February: Harbin Ice Festival
Millions of tourists visit this icy festival in northern China every year, drawn by the massive ice sculptures that adorn the fairgrounds next to Harbin’s Songhua River.
The sculptures, ice palaces, mazes and slides of the Harbin Ice Festival are simply massive in scale, constructed from some 260,000 cubic yards of ice blocks harvested from the river. They range in size from life-scale carvings of animals and fantastic creatures, to massive 250-foot structures that tower over the crowds.
There’s more to do than just gawp at the ice formations, though: you can join the fairs, ride the ice slides, or watch odd competitions like the winter swimmers who brave the subzero cold and swim in the Songhua River in their skivvies.
- Where: Harbin, China
- When: January 5-February 5
The Lunar New Year (most 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 feast with family and friends, observing old traditions to bring good fortune and prosperity in the year to come.
The full Lunar New Year celebration lasts around 15 days, from the initial salvos of New Year’s Eve to Chap Goh Mei at the very end. Tourists may want to steer clear of travel at this time, as millions of people travel home to be with family or head out to top destinations in Asia for the holiday.
- Where: In Asia, localized festivals include the Tet celebration in Vietnam, and the Seollal celebration in South Korea. Ethnic Chinese communities hold Chinese New Year festivities throughout Southeast Asia (most specially in Singapore and in Penang, Malaysia), mirroring similar celebrations on mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
- When: First to the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar: starts on January 25 (2020); February 12 (2021); February 1 (2022); and January 22 (2023).
The Hindu festival of Thaipusam in January or February celebrates Lord Murugan, the Tamil god of war. Some devotees pierce their bodies with swords, skewers, and hooks while carrying heavy shrines (kavadis) on their bodies through long processions.
Thaipusam is celebrated by Hindu Tamil communities from Southeast Asia to California. Malaysia and Singapore are home to some of the largest celebrations.
At the Batu Caves just on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, millions of spectators gather for a day-long celebration that sees dozens of skewered devotees stagger up the cave’s 272 steps to show their devotion to their Lord.
- Where: Throughout India and anywhere there is a large Tamil population.
- When: full moon of the 10th month of the Hindu Calendar: February 8 (2020); January 28 (2021); January 18 (2022); and February 5 (2023)
Japan’s biggest winter festival unfolds over at 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 sites in Sapporo. The centerpiece Odori Park site features some 100 ice sculptures of all sizes, dazzlingly lit up after dark. 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 fantastic, including anime-based creatures like Pokemon. Beyond the frigid statuary, visitors can enjoy snow mazes, street food, musical performances and skating on the ice rink near Odori Park.
- Where: Sapporo, Japan
- When: February 4-11, 2020
One of Japan’s more bizarre festivals, Setsubun is about throwing beans to ward off evil spirits!
People gather at temples to pick up roasted soybeans, known in the local language as fuku mame (fortune beans). In public places like temples and shrines, people throw the beans for good luck, shouting Oni-wa-soto (Out with evil demons!) and Fuku-wa-uchi (In with good fortune!). The Japanese believe that people can ensure health and happiness if they retrieve and eat fuku mame in a number that matches their age.
At public celebrations, gifts and candy are thrown to frenzied crowds from stages. Celebrities, sumo wrestlers, and other figures take the stage to throw items to the crowd in televised events.
In private homes, the head of the household wears a demon mask as family members throw beans and peanuts at him until he is driven away!
- Where: Throughout Japan
- When: February 2 or 3
February/March: Taiwan’s Sky Lantern Festivals
Lantern festivals are a major part of the Chinese New Year calendar, and Taiwan throws some of the most scenic. The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is Taiwan’s most visited lantern festival, lighting the skies over its small namesake village with floating lanterns bearing messages for the gods.
Its counterpart in the Yangshui District favors a noisier kind of illumination—the Tainan Yanshui Fireworks Display (meaning beehive of fireworks) 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 Taiwanese minds—they refer to the twin festivals as “fireworks in the south, sky lanterns in the north”.
- Where: Pingxi and Yangshui, Taiwan
- When: First full moon of the Lunar New Year—2020: February 9; 2021: February 27; 2022: February 16; 2023: February 6