Christmas In China

December 2, 2009

by Judy Smith

Chinese people will embrace any excuse to have a celebration. They love to get together with friends and family, shoot off fireworks, release fire lanterns into the night sky, and of course, eat; so it’s no surprise to find that Christmas is gaining popularity in China. Christmas also celebrates their favorite colour-red, the colour of good luck and prosperity.

Young people enjoy watching increasingly popular Hollywood movies, where Christmas is seen as a happy family gathering filled with light and wonder and romance, and they want that, too. In other words, it appears on the surface that Christmas in China has been bought: lock, stock and barrel.

I have had no problem finding Christmas cards, all of which are written in perfect English and have the traditional images of Christmas on them. This is in contrast to the delightful cards I used to get in Korea, which proclaimed “Greet to you at the Christmas,” or “Happiness is for love” and on which were glued hand-made miniature flower baskets or elaborate pop-out nature scenes…

My daughter has asked for something from China but not “Made in China.” I know what she means. I wonder if it exists.

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For many countries in the world, Christmas is a hot time for retailers, and China, rapidly becoming a major world power, is no exception. In fact, some people are fond of describing China as capitalism gone berserk. As I walk through the downtown streets twelve days before Christmas, I am saddened to see that nothing resembles the true meaning of Christmas. There are no carols or Christmas music to be heard; there are no bell-ringing Salvation Army Santas asking for donations. Instead, artificial paper Christmas trees decorated with cheap trinkets and paper cut-outs of Santa Claus adorn shop windows, enticing shoppers to buy, buy, and buy. Unlike stores in Canada which offer the inclusive “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays,” stores in China unabashedly proclaim “Merry Christmas.” But to whom are they wishing Christmas greetings?

Christianity has not gained a strong hold in China, partially because of the influence of communism and Confucianism. Karl Marx once quipped, “Religion is the opium of the masses,” and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution all but banned Christianity. Although there is no official count, it is felt that there are at present approximately one million Christians in China, which is not that many in a population of almost two billion. Churches are a rare sight. My Christian colleagues tell me that people go to church on Christmas, and sing carols like worshippers in the West. Their children eagerly await Santa Claus’ visit, who stuffs their muslin socks with gifts. Some churches host a huge feast for all the parishioners on Christmas Day.

Does the celebration of Christmas in China amount to a mere business opportunity, or is it more heartfelt? Guangdong-born David, age 32, points out that Christmas in the West is now more of a commercial occasion than anything else. “So what if China profits from Christmas? It’s kind of lost its meaning in the West now anyway. In this day and age, when the whole world is becoming more international, I think it’s great that we can share festivals. Chinese New Year is really popular overseas, so why shouldn’t we celebrate Christmas too?”

I agree, up to a point. And that point is that, for a Chinese person there is something special about Lunar New Years-something that I, a westerner who has not grown up within the culture, can never truly appreciate. Similarly, there is something about Christmas which cannot be duplicated in cheap trinkets and a glossy Santa Claus. It lives in the smell of my mother’s fur coat, in the delectable aromas from our kitchen beginning early in November, in the smiles and warmth and laughter around kitchen tables and in the ripe odour of fresh trees sparkling with colourful lights and unique decorations passed on for generations…in all this and more, there is something about Christmas which cannot be bought, for any price.

This year we will exchange simple gifts on Christmas morning, as usual. We will cook something special for dinner, albeit not a turkey because we have no oven. Maybe we will spend some time with our colleagues playing cards and socializing. We will talk to our children on Skype, and we will appreciate each other and the lives we have created.

The sound of age-old carols and Christmas songs ring through my brain…”I’ll be Home for Christmas…”, but I won’t and I don’t miss being there. I don’t miss the conspicuous consumption and the glitz and the guilt for not spending g-zillions of dollars on gifts, and the guilt for having when there are so many who do not. I don’t miss the anxiety of deciding with whom we spend Christmas and, as it follows, with whom we do not. The truth is, Christmas at home makes me feel sad. I am happy to be away from all that. I am happy to be in a place where it’s not shoved in my face 24 hours a day, I don’t have to look at it, I don’t have to hear it and I don’t even have to think about it.


About the Author:Judy Smith is the author of Native Blood: Nursing on the Reservation (Oberon Press). She is teaching English at the Sino-Canadian University in Nanning, China. The program is affiliated with the University of Waterloo and was initiated by Prime Minister Chrétien during the trade talks with China. Staff and curriculum are provided by Canada; facilities are provided by China. The university is always looking for qualified teachers, especially retirees.

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