I’m often asked about Christmas in Malaysia and what it’s like to experience Christmas in the tropics. Without a doubt it’s a special time of year and December and January are the busiest social months of the year—for expats and Malaysians alike.
This Christmas will be my seventh in Penang. Malaysia has a tropical climate so weather-wise it’s very similar to Australia. The Malaysian monsoon season ends in November so the humidity is low by the time Christmas comes around. It’s hot though, but not unusually so for Australians, New Zealanders or South Africans. We’re used to hot Christmases. At home we’d celebrate Christmas day on Bondi Beach, followed by a swim in the afternoon. Here in Penang it’s spent by the pool, so not so different.
December in Penang is a busy time. The shopping malls up the ante and add Christmas decorations and tall, beautifully decorated Christmas trees—flown in from Australia—are the norm. They often fly in choirs from Australia from the 15th December onwards too, and Santa and his grotto become the most popular attractions with Malaysian families. Some of shopping malls lower their air-conditioning during the month of December just to make it feel a bit more festive.
Most of the expat organisations hold Christmas functions. Some hold golf days, where the players are asked to wear something festive (most wear Santa hats) while others, The Irish Association for example, hold their Christmas party at Healy Mac’s Irish Pub at Straits Quay. There is always a live band and the Irish Ambassador usually attends—as do Santa and Elvis! The Malaysian German Society hold a large garden party at their headquarters next door to historic Suffolk House and The International Women’s Association host an end of year lunch at the E&O Hotel—attended by over 300 women from 31 different countries it’s a joyous occasion.
Not to be missed is the E&O Hotel’s traditional Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Their tree is the best decorated tree in Penang. When the lights are turned on, the festive season is truly upon us. After that, who knows…but there is always the party at the RAAF Hostie. The RAAF have a long history in Penang and RAAF Butterworth has been home to various Australian squadrons since 1957. Today the base is also home to squadrons from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Singapore and of course Malaysia. It’s usually a fun party, and as the club has no official hours, it could be a long night.
Of course Malaysia is similar in many other ways too. Malaysians love festivals, and it doesn’t matter that the festival is Christian. A multi-ethnic, multi religious society, Malaysians go out of their way to make the most of Christmas and to enjoy what is the beginning of the three biggest festivals in Malaysia. Christmas (December), the Hindu festival of Thaipusam (January) and Chinese New Year in February. It’s the start of the festive season for everyone and you can feel positivity in the air.
There is no shortage of food for the festive season either. Those seeking traditional Christmas Day and Christmas Eve meals are spoilt for choice. Nearly every hotel and restaurant in Penang and Kuala Lumpur put on a special buffet or set menu featuring all of the classic favourites…beef tenderloin, fresh ham, prime ribs, roasted turkey and an assortment of tempting vegetarian dishes. One restaurant hoping to attract the vegetarian crowd in Kuala Lumpur is advertising pies filled with sweet celery root, brussel sprouts and parsnip in a sage-infused cream sauce. That meal would even tempt me to turn to the dark side, but I love turkey, and my favorite, honey ham, is a tradition that I just can’t do without.
If you want to enjoy a meal at home with family and friends but don’t want to cook, the E&O Hotel in Penang offer take-away turkeys (specially flown in from Australia). They are ready roasted and delivered hot from the oven to your doorstep. They come with all the side dishes and desserts you can think of, and many that you can’t.
Some Australians in Malaysia continue with the Christmas trees on the beach theme and decorate their trees with, you guessed it…beer cans. Tanjong Bungah Beach is a popular gathering spot and if you’re slightly nostalgic and missing home, this is the place to be. The beer can tradition started in Sydney, on Bondi Beach, and is said to have its origins dating back to ANZAC Cove, where diggers from Australia and New Zealand would decorate their trees with empty cans of food. You have to love Christmas in Malaysia—I know I do.
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