What China’s secular Christmas really means.
China Christmas-tizes each year. The shopping malls are done up like they are in the USA — reindeer displays in the aisles, Christmas trees set up like gauntlets, Santas stand in phalanxes around doorways and by escalators, fake snow, decorations, and lights drape the facades. The commercial streets of major cities are decorated — Nanjing Road in Shanghai was a feast of lights and Christmas music. Private schools have Christmas parties as a rule. My five year old American daughter goes to school and is taught the Chinese take on what Christmas is all about.
Except for the 100 million or so Christians in China, Christmas is purely a secular holiday. The religious origins of the celebration simply weren’t imported with the snowmen, wrapping paper, and jingles. This is to the point that many people in China don’t seem to recognize that there is a connection at all.
“I’m Jewish, I don’t celebrate Christmas,” my wife once told a Chinese co-worker.
“So why don’t you celebrate Christmas?” she replied innocently. “You are still an American.”
The practice of a secular Christmas isn’t something that’s reserved to China, as Japan, Korea, and many other mostly non-Christian countries around the world are now celebrating stripped-down versions of the holiday. Going out shopping and giving gifts on December 25th has more or less become a global norm, regardless of religion. Christmas has been globalized, and the reasons extend beyond the mere commercial.
In China, Christmas, and Western things in general, has periodically been a symbol of wealth, intellectualism, worldliness (which is ultimately little different than how the USA once held Europe up as the cultural icon to emulate). The current rise in popularity of the holiday is in direct proportional to the country’s rising new middle/ upper class, and has been added to an array of other new values and practices that they have adopted — like owning pet dogs, going abroad for university, speaking English, and drinking red wine. It’s a celebration that is still largely undefined and is being molded as this new internationalized class molds their own identities and worldviews.
Though it’s a long Chinese tradition to absorb the traditions of other cultures. If something that is introduced works within the Chinese paradigm and adds some benefit to the society, is often kept and adapted, and that which doesn’t work is simply left out. Religions, technologies, music, philosophies, and even conquering armies have been been being absorbed by China for thousands of years.
Like how an archaeologist can construct a complete render of an ancient vase from just a few small ceramic sherds, the Chinese have reconstructed Christmas from a scant few readily observable elements, added what they wanted into the mix, and have made it their own creation. They took the shopping, the iconography, the presents, and the family atmosphere, twisted it, Sino-fied it, and left the more in-depth, not as inter-culturally conducive elements by the wayside. It’s not a leap of logic or a contradiction for the Chinese to celebrate Christmas without a hint of religiousness, it’s just an example of how they can swallow what they want from other cultures, spit out the rest, and still remain uniquely themselves. They can adopt, they can appropriate, but they rarely ever fundamentally change, and this is probably one of the reasons why the culture has lasted so long.
What they’ve created with Christmas is a holiday that is stripped of family pressure, removed from the strictures of tradition, and is absent of the excessive formalities that dictate most other Chinese holidays. If the Lunar New Year celebration was a three piece suit, Christmas would be a sweatsuit. Simply put, the main reason for the current popularity of Christmas in China is because it’s fun. For the most part, Christmas here is about getting together with family and friends. You invite your buddies out to dinner, maybe you go and sing karaoke, perhaps you exchange presents. Though the commercial influence cannot be denied — Christmas is one of the most profitable seasons in the country for retailers — there is more to the holiday here than just shopping. To put it simply, it’s a day for having fun with your people — exactly the same as it is anywhere else in the world.
Read more about Christmas in China:
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