CHRISTMAS IN CHINA (1)
aims to answer all your burning curiosities about how Christmas is
manifesting itself over here in Dalian, combined with some other random
vignettes about how cold I am.
I wake up in the
morning and I put on my bathrobe before going to the kitchen where we have a
digital thermometer. It says it is 21 degrees Fahrenheit outside and 51
inside (the abominable indoor temperature can be blamed on
communist heating). I go back to the bedroom, which is at least warmer than
the kitchen, and start putting on my four pounds of clothes. I’m only going
to work, but I must dress like I’m going on the Iditarod. I first put on my
thick long underwear, which is like a wool sweater for my legs, then my
jeans, then my thick socks. On my torso I stack no less than 6 layers of
shirts and sweaters. People who meet me for the first time during the
winter could not be blamed for thinking I was a bit on the chubby side. To
go outside for my 15-minute walk to work, I add my winter coat, hat, scarf,
and gloves, which is far more than any of the locals are wearing. Only my
eyes are exposed to the bitter 4-degree wind chill.
I get to school,
(eyes watering, nose dripping, lips covered in wool hairs from my scarf),
and there is a Christmas tree and a scary plastic life-size Santa in the
lobby, and suddenly it all makes sense. Of course I’m freezing to
death—it’s almost Christmas! I’ve been conditioned by countless movies
and years of experience to associate cold weather with the warmth of
Christmas, and so it only seems natural that this suffering is some
necessary precursor to the holiday season. To help you understand why I
appreciate this (because I’m generally not a fan of Christmas or freezing to
death), let me recap my last three Christmases:
2002: Zac and I
are in a little village called Omege, in Namibia. It’s about 100 degrees
Fahrenheit outside. We wake up Christmas morning to find our host family
already out weeding the mahangu fields like normal.
2003: I am on
an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic. I am full of painkillers, my arm is
in a sling and I’m sitting next to a Jewish man who keeps giving me all of
his food because it’s not Kosher.
2004: We are in
Kentucky at Zac’s grandparents house. We’re on a tri-state whirlwind tour
to visit all of our primary relatives. 6 days ago we were in South Africa,
two weeks ago we left our home at Ekulo. We are still blinking our eyes and
waking up to our old life, to the realization that Namibia is over.
And now: 2005.
We finally have the proper approach to Christmas. It’s cold. It’s snowy.
It’s dark by 4:30 pm. The entrance to the shopping center we frequent most
often is filled with Christmas decorations and is playing Christmas music.
We’ve received two Christmas cards. We even bought some Christmas lights to
put up in our house (although half the strand doesn’t light up anymore).
The only things missing are candy canes.
spending the past three pre-Christmases in the southern hemisphere, I fully
appreciate how much being cold adds an air of authenticity to the Christmas
season. Any air of authenticity is greatly needed here in China, where
piracy, copyright infringement, fakes, and plagiarism are all quite normal
and commonplace. How refreshing it is, then, to notice that here Christmas
is a pure, unadulterated celebration of western commercialism.
Less than 4% of
the Chinese population is Christian, so the holiday is only vaguely
associated with the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus. However,
through associations with the outside world, associations which are mostly
economic, the marketability of Christmas is dashing across China faster than
Rudolph. Christmas advertising is quite evident in Dalian, probably because
it is one of China’s “special economic zones” and therefore it attracts a
lot of foreign business. Dalian has a lot of Japanese, Koreans and Russians
in addition to all of us English teachers from the west, and no doubt this
has increased the presence of Christmas promotions. So Christmas here is
all about Christmas trees, lights, and Santa Claus, and it seems to be
celebrated primarily by department stores, hotels, and some restaurants like
Pizza Hut and McDonalds.
Christmas is not even recognized as an official holiday in China. It is
becoming popular in this primarily atheist society simply because it is
another holiday, and who can turn down a holiday? The Irish brought us St.
Patricks Day and the influx of Mexicans brought Cinco De Mayo. You may have
some vague idea about the origins of those holidays in the same way the
Chinese have some vague notions about the relationship between Christmas and
People are generally willing to adopt any holiday that comes along as a
pleasant excuse to escape the monotony of daily life without much
consideration about the origins of the holiday.
puritans of course. The puritans who first settled in America were opposed
to Christmas because the Bible didn’t say anything about December 25th
but the Roman festival to Saturnalia did. In the ancient calendar,
December 25th was the winter solstice, and the rituals of
Saturnalia, such as gift giving, were incorporated into the celebration of
Christmas in the 4th century, AD. The puritans boycotted
Christmas because they felt it was at heart a pagan ritual, albeit disguised
as a Christian one.
So maybe, from a
puritan point of view, it isn’t surprising that in China, where the
government is profoundly atheist (to be a member of the Communist Party, you
must renounce all religion), and the vast majority of the population is not
Christian, there is no opposition to the word “Christmas” being plastered
everywhere. There are a few quirks in their adoption of the holiday though.
Apparently they haven’t quite got the hang of the western calendar yet
because all the signs say “Merry
Christmas 2006.” A giant billboard outside of the department store across
from our school says “X’mas Festizal.” Christmas festizal? What on
earth is Christmas festizal? But there you have it—a perfect representation
of China’s rapid and sometimes careless development under western influence
(the typo) and a blending of cultures: at the end of January is the Chinese
New Year, called “Spring Festival”. This is preceded by Christmas Festival
in December. Of course.
So how is the
“Christmas festizal” actually celebrated here? Well, I’m not sure exactly,
but I’ll find out and tell you all about it in the next installment of
“Christmas in China.”
everyone, because I’m freezing over here.