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Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

2016-12-24 10:56:38 William Matthews

When I was studying in Beijing I ended up spending Christmas in the Chinese capital - the first time I had spent Christmas away from home, and in a country in which the holiday has not historically been celebrated. It was nearing the end of term, which would finally arrive in January – and bang in the middle of exam season. We had exams on Boxing Day, Christmas Day itself apparently spared thanks to timetabling considerations rather than a nod to the season.

Nonetheless, festive cheer was not entirely absent. The local shopping centre clearly sensed the commercial appeal of cashing in on a foreign holiday, and had installed a large, rather garish Christmas tree in the plaza outside. Some of the Western teachers at the university had planned their own celebrations. I decided to go for Peking duck, the closest local match to a festive bird I could think of, but my efforts proved in vain. Apparently plenty of others had had similar thoughts, as Quanjude, one of Beijing’s best-known duck chains, had closed early having entirely run out of birds. A couple of the university teachers had actually secured something labelled as a ‘turkey leg’ from the local supermarket, only to have been thwarted by a translation error. They had in fact purchased ham, which sounds almost identical to ‘turkey leg’ in Mandarin (huo tui), and not realised until they noticed the distinctly un-turkey-like aroma wafting from their oven (apparently at no stage between picking up the meat, unwrapping it, and putting it in the oven had they noticed the porcine quality of this supposedly avian appendage).

Christmas, then, isn’t exactly the huge thing in China that it is in the West. But it would be wrong to assume that China is a festive wasteland. In addition to the country’s sixty-million or so Christians, plenty of people do celebrate the holiday in some way - it just isn’t quite the same. The Chinese year’s festivities focus on the Spring Festival at the Lunar New Year, a time of feasting and family reunion, and this remains the most meaningful holiday. However, like most foreign imports into China, Christmas has been absorbed and taken on particularly Chinese characteristics.

Although it is not officially recognised as a public holiday, many people, especially the younger generations, use Christmas as an excuse to celebrate. Typically, though, this involves spending time with friends rather than family, and going out for a film or karaoke rather than staying in for food and booze. One thing that has been taken up in China, though, is gift-giving – but here again, with a very local twist. On Christmas Eve it has become popular to give apples as gifts to friends. They are usually wrapped in colourful paper or cellophane, perhaps with festive imagery, and as the big day arrives suddenly appear spread out on the pavement before street vendors.

In Beijing, I had noticed the Christmas apple vendors popping up around the university but not quite registered the festive connection. At least, not until a Chinese friend of mine presented me with a wrapped apple and wished me a happy ‘Ping’an ye’. Ping’an ye is the Mandarin for ‘Christmas Eve’, literally meaning ‘peaceful night’ – and this explains the practice of giving apples. Like the teachers’ turkey-ham escapade, it’s down to Mandarin’s propensity for similar-sounding words. In this case, the word for ‘peace’, ping, sounds like the word ‘apple’, pingguo, so the fruit makes the perfect Christmas Eve gift.

My friend was a little surprised that I hadn't seen such a thing before, because for her it was an obvious aspect of Christmas. This hints at perhaps the most important aspect of Chinese Christmas – the vast majority of people in China are unfamiliar with how it is celebrated elsewhere and, especially, unfamiliar with the holiday’s religious significance. The impression I got from talking to friends about it in Beijing and Hangzhou was that they understood mainly as a kind of Western equivalent to the Spring Festival – and a cultural rather than religious celebration.

Of course, plenty of people in the West might lament the loss of the ‘true’ religious meaning of Christmas (though personally I enjoy binging on food, booze, and presents, and tell myself it better reflects the pre-Christian midwinter festival spirit). However, for most non-Christians in China the Christian message simply isn’t part of Christmas at all. Given the lack of religious meaning and cultural unfamiliarity, it is perhaps unsurprising that Chinese Christmas is highly commercialised. The whole business is a great opportunity for, well, business, and Santa Claus troupes and Christmas trees make great sales gimmicks. This is partly to do with the government’s deliberate efforts to promote Christmas’ commercial side and thereby detract from its religious elements – something which has been largely successful.

Opposition to aspects of Christmas, though, doesn’t just come from the government and its mistrust of religion. Especially among more educated sectors of the population, there are those who fear the impact increasing adoption of Christmas might have. Some see it as a form of Western soft power that will turn people away from their own traditions – and there have even been calls for Chinese consumers to boycott the whole thing. Given the history of Western involvement in China and Chinese resistance to the influence of Western missionaries, a view of Christmas as potentially damaging to Chinese cultural identity should not be unexpected.

However, it certainly isn’t all doom and gloom on that front. Whilst more and more people in China become curious about Christmas and celebrate it in their own way, it is hardly likely to rival the major Chinese festivals, and certainly not the Spring Festival. Christmas in China is becoming its own distinct phenomenon. People are accommodating it as an interesting addition to their calendar, an excuse for a good night out with friends to keep up their spirits through the winter until the real festivities of the lunar new year begin a couple of months later.

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