Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas in China

My first trip to China was in December 1991, and this Chinese Santa was the only touch of Christmas I saw. This Santa graced the lobby of the Beijing Hilton, which was pretty much open only to foreigners at the time.

Ten years later, the Christian Science Monitor reported on the growing popularity of Christmas in China:

Somewhere on the journey to becoming the world's biggest exporter of Christmas toys, China started importing yule for itself. Christmas wreaths and lighted trees, white-foam snowmen and special dinners, as well as an ethos of "jingle-bell cool" are wafting in on the wings of global culture, bringing a holiday atmosphere to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

At a Beijing noodle shop bedecked with silver and gold plastic bells, cook Yin Li pauses over a beef stew when asked if all the decorations seem like a foreign cultural
invasion. "Honestly, no," she says. "I like it. It makes everything feel more like a holiday." Throughout Asia, in fact, Western holidays have become chic, both for their commercial potential and because new generations think the act of decorating and celebrating is fun and different. Not only Christmas, but Valentine's Day, Father's Day and Mother's Day, Thanksgiving and Halloween, are finding a Pacific niche - where five years ago there was none.

"There's an appropriation and modification of Western holidays, with a commercial twist, in Asia," says Mark Mullins, a professor of religion and Japanese society at Sophia University in Tokyo. "Each year it increases ... whether or not people are
interested in faith."

And an expat English teacher reports this month about Christmas in China:

“Christmas is about giving gifts,” a student answered recently when I asked about the significance of this holiday in China. “It’s a day to spend time with friends and play,” another student answered. Still, many of my friends and students are vaguely familiar with the story of Christmas. . . . My students also tell me that Christmas is a holiday for the younger generation. “Our parents don’t know anything about Christmas,” explained a student to me today. Her parents probably grew up in a time when celebrating or even acknowledging Christmas in China was frowned upon by the Chinese government. These days, Beijing has no problem with the celebration of Christmas so long as it is devoid of religion and promotes social harmony.

Just a few years ago in China, I had to find my way to the back corner of a local market place to buy a fake Christmas tree and decorations. Now it seems that the
big supermarkets in China offer a large variety of Christmas items for very reasonable prices. It is also easier than ever to ‘catch’ the Christmas spirit in China, as stores - both large and small -play familiar Christmas tunes for their customers. Hearing the words ‘Ding, Ding, Dong’ instead of the words ‘Jingle Bells’ may be a bit strange at first, but it least it sounds like the same song. Many stores also feature their own beautifully decorated Christmas trees as well as special holiday season discounts which help foreigners like me to feel much more at home.

When we arrived in Xiamen in February 2007, we saw some remnants of Christmas, including Santa decorations in the lobby of our guest house -- though that was probably for the benefit of the foreigners staying there. There were, however, still Christmas decorations and Christmas cards for sale at many of the stores we frequented. It was all completely overwhelmed by the left-over decorations for Chinese New Year (Year of the Pig!). And Easter decorations were impossible to come by in Xiamen.

So these days in China, celebrating Western holidays is very much "in," with Christmas probably the most popular. Yes, Chen Xing, there is a Santa Claus!

Update: China Daily published an article on Christmas day titled, Santas Sprout Up to Spread Spirit of Season. Interesting picture of a Santa's life in China.


Wendy said...

We were there 2 years ago during Christmas. The White Swan was all decked out for the holiday and was also packed with Chinese tourists visiting there to enjoy the decorations. It was not at all what I expected to find in China!

Anonymous said...

I thought that I had "escaped" the commercialisation of Christmas in Oz with having to put up with "Jingle Bells" everytime I went near a mall or supermarket but now I have to put up with it twice, once in English and once in Chinese. Chinese seem to think that all "westerners" celebrate Christmas and get pretty confused when you explain that many don't.

Louanne said...

You know we spend the month of March 2008 in Beijing and saw many Christmas decorations still up. And we were not in a tourist area at all. We were there during Easter and you see NOTHING, NADA about that.

But my tutor did tell me that Christmas Eve is the biggest night of the year for our age group (lower 30's) to go out and party. She said it is bigger than New Years Eve to go out to a club and have at it. So the people she knew Christmas really meant party.

She did ask me all about Easter which was a cool and interesting conversation.