These winter festivals and holidays in Asia are some of the biggest events of the year, particularly the Lunar New Year celebration each January or February. Western holidays such as Christmas and New Year's Eve are also observed in many parts of Asia—be ready!
Some of the dates for these Asian winter festivals in December, January, and February are based on the lunisolar calendar, so dates change annually. All these events are big enough to have a major impact on your trip. Either plan your travel dates around them (flights and accommodation prices will increase) or arrive early enough to jump into the fray.
The Lunar New Year (most commonly known as Chinese New Year) is by no means just a Chinese celebration; it is observed around the world with much preparation and excitement. For around 15 days, Lunar New Year has an impact on travel throughout Asia. Millions of people travel home to be with family or head out to top destinations in Asia for the holiday.
The purpose of carefully preparing for Chinese New Year and observing old traditions is to bring good fortune and prosperity in the upcoming lunar year. Out with the old (luck) and in the with the new (fortune)!
Houses are cleaned, new clothes are purchased, old debts and grudges are forgiven—all to make way for new prosperity.
- Where: Throughout the world
- When: January or February
The Emperor of Japan's Birthday
The Emperor’s Birthday (Tenno Tanjobi in Japanese) on December 23 is one of only two days a year when the public may enter the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
The Emperor's Birthday is a national holiday in Japan and is celebrated with a public ceremony with lots of flag waiving. A throng gathers outside the Imperial Palace and awaits an appearance and speech from the imperial family.
- Where: Tokyo
- When: Annually on December 23
The Japanese New Year festival (December 31 to January 2), known as Shogatsu, is one of the biggest events in Japan.
Although the Lunar New Year is still observed as the traditional New Year in January or February, January 1 from the Gregorian Calendar has been the "official" New Year celebration since 1873.
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.
- Where: Throughout Japan
- When: December 31 to January 2
The Hindu festival of Thaipusam in January or February celebrates Lord Murgan, 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.
Republic Day on January 26 is one of India’s few 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 Delhi is a huge event. Cameras and phones are not allowed; security is strict—be prepared.
- Where: Throughout India but especially in Delhi
- When: January 26
One of Japan’s more bizarre festivals, Setsubun is about throwing beans to ward off evil spirits!
People gather at temples to pick up beans (mostly soybeans). 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
Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is the largest celebration in Vietnam and typically coincides with the same dates as Lunar New Year.
Vietnam observes the New Year with street shows, parades, firecrackers, big fireworks, and general chaos, particularly in Saigon. Although Tet is a colorful, exciting time to travel in Vietnam, plan well in advance for accommodation and transportation!
- Where: Throughout Vietnam
- When: Usually the same as Lunar New Year in January or February
Christmas in Asia
Many people of all religions scattered throughout Asia observe Christmas on December 25.
Christmas trees and decorations pop up weeks prior to December 25 in metropolitan shopping malls and even in some public squares. Places such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Bangkok are especially keen to decorate. Don't be surprised if you hear Christmas music in Asia in early November!
Christmas is one of the biggest holidays in the Philippines, the most predominantly Catholic country in Asia.
A very large Christmas party and festival are held each year in Goa, India.
New Year's Eve in Asia
Despite a big portion of Asia observing Lunar New Year, the night of December 31 and the day of January 1 are still great reasons to celebrate!
Western expats throughout Asia hold parties, and nightclubs in big cities get in on the action with special parties and promotions. Many locals and travelers of all nationalities look for places to celebrate the occasion. The CentralWorld mall in Bangkok hosts a NYE countdown in the massive square outside.
December Full Moon Parties
The New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand is often the largest of the year. Every month, tens of thousands of travelers head to Haad Rin (a peninsula in the southern part of Koh Phangan, Thailand) to party like crazy the week of the full moon. December sees two parties: the regular full moon and then December 31. Sometimes there's barely a break between the two!
If you're traveling around the Samui Archipelago around the time of the full moon in December, you'll notice the influx of backpacking travelers. People head south a few days before the full moon. Accommodation and transportation fill up quickly.