Bangkok (AsiaNews) – From a small celebration characteristic of the Christian festival, which drew a handful of faithful, the Christmas procession has evolved over the years into a tourist attraction that can capture the attention of hundreds of thousands of visitors, including Thai nationals and foreign tourists.
80% of those attending, confirm local Church sources, are not Catholic but still want to take part in the "Procession of the Christmas Stars" held in the Archdiocese of Tharae-Nongsaeng, Sakon Nakhon province, in northeastern Thailand. In fact the event has become one of the main end of year attractions nationwide, so much so it is promoted on the official website of Thai tourism (Tat).
The Archdiocese of Tharae-Nongsaeng covers an area of 25 thousand km2 and extends in four different provinces in the north-east; there are about 55 thousand Catholics out of a total population of over three million. It is an area full of meaning for the local Catholic tradition, it is also the land of the seven Thai martyrs proclaimed saints by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 22, 1989.
The traditional procession takes place 23 to 25 December of each year; the beating heart of the celebration - which since 2003 has received official recognition by the leadership of Tat - the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel.
In 1982 the then Archbishop Lawrence Khai Saen-Phon On (1980-2004) had the idea of promoting a Christmas procession, taking as reference the star that guided the journey of the Magi to the stable where Jesus was born. For the first 15 years the procession , made up of twenty trucks decorated and ready to parade through the streets of the city, he encouraged the participation of the local faithful.
However, over time as well as being a demonstration of the faith of the Christian community it has sparked the interest of non-Catholic citizens and tourists in the area during the holidays.
"The locals - says current Archbishop Msgr. Louis Chamniern Santisukniran speaking to the Catholic monthly Udomsarn - are proud to live in a land of martyrs and practice a consistent and deep faith. " Catholics, added the prelate, participate actively in the activities of the diocese and the Church's life.
And the procession of the Christmas Stars, or poinsettia as they are known, has become over time the most important event of the year. It starts on the first day, 23 December, with a "internal" procession of the Tharae community members. The journey of the faithful unfolds in the main streets of the city, in a characteristic atmosphere of colony era, architectures wooden houses and buildings in the Vietnamese tradition combined with Western style influences.
It continues on the 24, with a festival held in the Sakhon Nakhon center and with the participation of local people and tourists. At 6 in the evening of December 25, the culmination of the event, with the traditional procession in which (today) over 200 trucks decorated with the Christmas stars, images of Christmas and reproduction of the angels, parade. The march kicks off in front of the statue of King Rama V and winds through the streets of the city, among an excited and curious crowd.
To accompany the procession during the three days there are exhibitions related to the native music, performances, dances, exhibitions, traditional songs; there is the closing fireworks display, to the joy of young and old. The festival is a special occasion to reunite families - many students who leave the capital, Bangkok, to visit their home and parents - and to tell the younger generation about the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ.