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.

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!"

My surprise was common among new arrivals from China. "It looked like a national holiday to me," Zhongling Yuxiu, a Chinese student at Yale, told me. "In China, Christmas is just like Valentine's Day or other western holidays that we decided to celebrate." Brought up in a Christian household in China, Zhongling had spent Christmases at underground churches in Beijing before she came to America. (There were also government-sanctioned services, but she called them "no different from propaganda.") She says she had considered herself only "culturally Christian" then. Living in America's more tolerant religious environment, where society attaches a much weightier significance to Christmas, she now feels her Christian identity better defined.

Some religious groups in China have tried to reconnect Christmas to its spiritual origins. Wiggling around in what limited space the government allows, the boundaries of which seem ever-changing, these groups do not always have much success. After graduating from Yale, an American I'll call Jane headed to southern China in 2008 to teach English. (She has asked not to be named for fear of putting her friend's church at risk.) A devout Christian, she planned to spend her Christmas in Beijing singing in a choir led by her friend, a pastor. Throughout that year, the Chinese government had been cracking down on ethnic protests and working to suppress negative food safety reports, all prior to the Olympic Games. It had little patience left for respecting Chinese Christians' end-of-the-year rituals. Although Jane's friend tried to negotiate permission for the concerts from the government, even agreeing to forego choir outfits and cut religious words from the carols, the performances -- which had won official approval in earlier years -- were called off at the last minute. The government had decided to cancel all "crowd-gathering events" for the fear that they might spark unrest.

That the state so tightly manages Christmas's image can be off-putting for Christians in China, but it also liberates them from some of the western perceptions surrounding Christianity. Jane says that she feels much more comfortable inviting friends in China to her Christmas choir than she might in America. "Religion is so stigmatized in America. The word Christianity is associated with Republican, Tea Party ... it's politicized." she told me. "In China, because non-Christian people understand so little about the religion, it is less threatening for them than for the non-Christian in the States." Her identity as a foreigner also gives her license to observe Christmas in China, she says. "Other Chinese people pretty much just assumed [I did that] because I was a crazy foreigner," she laughed. When Jane's non-Christian Chinese friends showed up to her choir performance, they saw not just foreigners, but also large crowds of men and women of fellow Chinese, engaging in activities they'd always perceived as western.

There is one thing that China's Christmas and America's have in common: both are widely lamented as over-commercialized. While some in America fight to resurface the holiday's spiritual significance, Christmas-bashers in China warn against allowing Western culture to contaminate Chinese civilization. Shortly before Christmas in 2006, ten post-doctoral students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, and other elite colleges penned an open letter asking Chinese people to boycott Christmas and resist the invasion of "western soft power." They warned, "[Christmas celebrators in China] are doing what western missionaries dreamed to do but didn't succeed in doing 100 years ago." The letter added, "Chinese people need to treat Christmas cautiously, and support the dominance of our own culture."

In the summer of 2007, I taught English in rural Fujian, a coastal province in southern China. One student had taken a few weeks off to work in a factory in Fuzhou, the capital of the province and a large export hub. When he returned to school, on a scorching mid-summer day, he dropped something into my palm, explaining it was a product of his factory that he had sneaked out to bring to me as a present. It was a large piece of gummy candy wrapped in plastic, wet from his sweaty palm, the shape of a white-bearded man in red robes.

"I brought more with me, but ate all of them on the train. It was too yummy." He smiled apologetically. "It was meant to be sent to America, for a holiday they call -- they call --" He struggled for the name.

"Sheng Dan Jie," I said. Christmas.

"Right," he repeated shyly, scratching his head. "Sheng Dan Jie."