The Christmas spirit has even reached as far as China’s sweltering south. Since 2009, a Santa Claus Post Office has operated in Guangzhou, offering specially stamped postcards, inked in Chinese calligraphy, and sending Santas, laden with donated gifts, to children in remote parts of the country. In sunny Sichuan, an official 13,000-square-meter replica of the Finnish Santa village that Xi visited is currently under construction, curiously titled “Floraland.”
And Christmas is on a kind of infinite loop in places like Shenzhen, whose population swells by 5 million in the summer to feed the Christmas electronics boom, and Yiwu, the southeastern city that famously produces 60 percent of the world’s Christmas decorations. In this real Santa’s workshop, the romantic notion of Christmas confronts a harsher truth: 12-hour days at $500 a month, and 600 factories churning out thousands of baubles a day, as a migrant workforce largely indifferent to their meaning produces disposable tat bound, ultimately, for landfills or perhaps recycling back in one of Guangdong’s notorious e-waste villages (to be fair, I’ve seen a fair few Christmas decorations in China left stubbornly hanging all year round, and listened to “Jingle Bells” in the summer).
There are currently around 100 million Chinese Christians (the government claims it is 23 million), more than the Communist Party’s membership, and Fenggang Yang, an expert on religion at Purdue University, believes this number will eclipse America’s estimated 159 million Protestants by 2025. Far from ushering in a new age of enlightenment from the “opiate of the masses,” the country’s strident and bewildering economic development has left behind Marxism and instead sent millions searching for priests and prayer books.
Still, it’s surprising that Christmas, with its connotations of faith, foreignness, and blithe consumerism, is so tolerated. “I don’t think the Communist Party has a clear position about Christmas, except for not encouraging it,” said Yang. “Christmas is not considered a public holiday and people don’t get a day off.” (In the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, where some Christmas carolers this year have added pro-democracy lyrics to their songs, it’s a statutory holiday.) In 2006, a group of post-doctoral Confucian students published an open letter, entitled “Walk Out of Cultural Collective Unconciousness and Strengthen Chinese Cultural Dominance,” that expressed anxiety about Western cultural hegemony and the encroachment of Christianity under the cover of Christmas celebrations. Chinese who observe Christmas are “doing what Western missionaries dreamed to do,” the letter claimed, urging a boycott of the holiday. It had little effect.
“Many Chinese have become so much in tune with globalization that they don’t really care whether this is Western or Chinese,” Yang observed, adding that retailers have “shamelessly promoted” Christmas: “Some years ago, on a snowing Christmas Eve, I stood in the street trying to get a taxi for a long time but simply could not find one, because every cab was filled with people going to restaurants. It looked as crazy as Mardi Gras.”