What China Loves About Christmas, and Doesn't

Christianity's most important holiday is a big event here, but state regulation of religion and a suspicion of all things Western can sometimes get in the way. And, yes, it's too commercialized.

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A man dressed as Santa Claus walks past two security guards in downtown Shanghai / Reuters

It's that time of the year again. Santa smiles from the glass doors of hair salons and pharmacies; "Joy to the World" plays in busy shopping malls; plastic trees laced with blinking lights stand in front of restaurants and bars, their dark green softened by the ruby glow of lanterns hanging under the eaves. And written on banners on university campuses and flashing in neon in business districts are the characters, "圣诞快乐!". The world's most widely celebrated religious holiday is in full swing here, in the center of communist China.

Christmas is young in China -- it did not enter mainstream society until well into the 1990s -- and is embraced mainly by the younger generation. According to a well-regarded Chinese business magazine, 70 percent of the people celebrating it here are below age 38. First introduced to the country by western missionaries, it found popularity in 1920s and 30s among converted Christians and in elite circles. Peasants feasted with their priests inside farmhouses; businessmen toasted over candles with foreign trade partners. In 1949, after the Communist Party took power, all things Western were labeled "mental poison" and Christmas gradually became a concept so foreign that people took little interest in it.

It had never occurred to me that the holiday is not universally celebrated in America as it is in China

The liberal spirit of the reform and opening era in the 1980s reinvigorated western culture in China, and the quickly marketized economy in the 1990s seized onto the holiday's profitable potential. Now, Christmas is both a commercial and fashion statement for many of the young in China, who celebrate in ways that would be at once familiar and alien to Westerners. Stand on Oriental Plaza in downtown Beijing and you'll see girls wearing furry reindeer antlers amble by, holding hands with their boyfriends in Santa hats. Open the government-owned Guangming Daily and stacks of ads on Christmas sales will fall into your lap. On certain streets on Christmas morning, convoys of Audis will glide past, decorated with red ribbons tied into a bow at the front, where a mini-sized Santa stands. The cars are taking happy brides and grooms to posh hotels and restaurants, where lavish wedding ceremonies -- a Christmas tradition here -- await.

Chinese and Americans might both indulge in shopping sprees around Christmas time, but how they think about the holiday is quite different. Christmas in the West represents an occasion to spend time with cherished ones, for families to exchange presents and friends to visit each other. In China, however, it is a social event not for one's private life but for the public domain. Students rehearse dance performances and plays for school-organized galas; foreign companies' labor unions hand out movie tickets and gift vouchers to employees. The intimate western traditions such as building gingerbread houses, hanging up stockings, or gathering as a family to open presents on Christmas morning have no equivalent in China; on Christmas eve, most young people will get together with maybe a dozen friends to watch the latest big release at the movie theater or belt out at a few songs at a karaoke bar. In many Chinese cities, Christmas kicks off what is often the most festive time of the year -- in a couple of weeks, when migrant workers jump onto homebound trains for Chinese New Year, these cities are left with little more than empty streets and closed stores.

The popular Chinese perception of Christmas as a holiday for the masses has two very different causes: peoples' love of communal celebration and the government's effort to distract from the holiday's religious aspect. Growing up in Beijing, I learned to hum "Jingle Bells" in elementary school and heard the story of the birth of Jesus from American teachers. Still, Christmas for me was a Western cultural phenomenon rather than something religious. It had never occurred to me that the holiday is not universally celebrated in America as it is in China until I came to the country six years ago as a student. When a Jewish friend described her plans on the night of the 24th of December, I asked, out of confusion, why none of it involved Christmas. When she told me, I exclaimed, "It is your national holiday after all!"

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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