The Christmas Star Festival in Sakon Nakhon has been among the much-anticipated annual events in Thailand for decades. But it's going to be more exciting this year with a floating procession at Nong Han Lake and a new marble archangel sculpture at the St Michael's Cathedral in tambon Tha Rae of Muang district.
Parades, star decoration, stage performances and a street market will still be there from Dec 21-25. But visitors would not just celebrate the birth of Jesus, symbolised with stars like in previous years. Instead, on the evening of Dec 22, they can also learn how the Tha Rae community, now known as the largest Catholic community in Thailand, began.
The floating procession, starting from 6pm, will depict the event back in mid-November 1884, when a French missionary led 35 families, including Vietnamese Catholics, in moving out of downtown Sakon Nakhon city for a new location. At another shore at Nong Han Lake, they prayed to St Michael, asking for guidance on where to settle. With boat rafts and blankets, the wind at the end of monsoon season blew in the usual direction and brought them to the shore of Nong Han. The migrants then started clearing the jungle and settling down by building small thatched-roof houses, municipality council member Theerapat Yongdee told the Bangkok Post.
"I've heard about this. My grandparents told me the story," Prapassorn Manachak, aged 20, said.
Ms Prapassorn said she is proud to have been born to this community, and honoured she was selected to be on a car in the parade as "an angel" for many years since she was a child. She believed it was a reward for being so diligent in helping make the stars, big and small ones at church, school and home, every year.
Although Putthipong Srikornchum, 13, and his sister Penpicha, 9, have never heard of how the community was first established, they felt the festive atmosphere as December approached and are eager to make the stars to commemorate the birth of Jesus every year.
"I helped make a giant and colourful star this year," he said, adding the star will be displayed during the Tha Rae Tai community's Christmas parade.
Tambon Tha Rae mayor Phongsak Srivorakul, 70, said he expects a few thousand visitors to view the parade on Dec 22, which will include two rafts with large stars and 20 fishing boats. Stage performances will be shown during the 40 minutes the procession takes to arrive at the Tha Rae pier. Visitors can see the entire thing from the shore and along the roads.
Locals dance by Nong Han Lake in Tha Rae, Sakon Nakhon. (Photos: Kornchanok Raksaseri)
For the whole festival, Mr Phongsak expects 7,000-10,000 people to attend, including visitors from afar. There were about 10,000 visitors two years ago and the number dropped to about 7,000 last year due to Covid-19. He expects to see increased visitor numbers until next year, as the procession will travel for about two kilometres, which is further than previous years.
Each participant must wear a face mask and be screened before entering the events, he said.
Visitors from other provinces are expected to stay for many days during the festival, Mr Phongsak said.
The street market will start on Dec 21 before the parade at the lake begins on Dec 22. The next day, large star processions will go around the villages in Tha Rae, but the following evening will be for individuals to hand-carry smaller stars to the St Michael Cathedral and join the ceremonial celebration. On Dec 25, the procession will come to downtown Sakon Nakhon city, parading around City Hall, he said.
The community is known for forging unity amid ethnic diversity to promote local cultures and tourism. While 95% of tambon Tha Rae's 14,000 population are Christians, they live harmoniously with Buddhists. All eight tribes and two ethnic minority groups in the area display their cultural performances at the festival every year.
Although descendants of the Vietnamese population today account for less than 30% of residents, traditions are still celebrated and authentic Vietnamese and Northeastern food recipes are still there to welcome people who enjoy good food, Mr Phongsak said.
Many tourists have been impressed with the Tha Rae community's history, conservation of architecture and city planning. The checkboard city plan allows tourists to stroll along parallel roads and see a mixture of wooden houses or shophouses with Vietnamese or even Chinese style of decoration, as well as French colonial-style buildings and modern style houses.
All of them are decorated with stars ahead of the festival. Some local people open their houses for workshops so visitors can learn how to make star lanterns from bamboo, kites and glitter paper.
Such festivities have attracted visitors from Bangkok, including Sutee Wattanakul, 34, who is organising a trip scheduled for Dec 22. He announced on jitarsabank.com that he is looking for others to travel with him.
After dozens of cultural study and environmental promotion trips over the past few years, his group now wants to study the life of the Christian community in this northeastern province, he said.
"This is like another town, a whole town in Thailand with a Christian community. I would like to study the culture and try making the stars for the festival," he said.
Another Christmas speciality at Tha Rae this year is the new marble sculpture of the Archangel Michael imported from Pietrasanta, Italy on Dec 3.
This masterpiece by Italian artists Ulderigo Giannoni and Alberto Giannoni is modelled after St Michael's sculpture at the top of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. It was donated by Joseph Somsak and Teresa Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul and other locals.
"Aside from Christianity being in every part of the people's life in Tha Rae, stars represent the high spirit of sharing goodness to each other," Fr Joseph Surasak Phongphit, pastor of St Michael's Cathedral, said about the spirit of the community.