Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

This weekend actually marked the second Christmas that I’ve spent in

Christmas decorations outside a mall

China. As a result, I wasn’t terribly surprised when decorations and Christmas trees started appearing in storefronts and outside malls in late November. The level of holiday kitsch which accumulates in Beijing is actually quite impressive-though I’m convinced that there must be one factory supplying every glass storefront int he city with the same identical cardboard cutout Santa Claus face. Indeed, as if Chinese malls weren’t already nearly identical to their American counterparts, they dutifully pipe in the same corny mix of holiday tunes throughout the month of December.

It was hard for me not to chuckle when I woke up on the 25th and read about the Pope’s lament that Christmas in the Western world was succumbing to the glitter of commercialism. In China, the holiday has, impressively, skipped the phase where it held any spiritual meaning and gone right to the commercialism. I’m inclined to agree with the analysis of a Chinese friend, who argues that Christmas in China is in most part just one of many manifestations of a growing urban class with disposable income. Indeed, Christmas in China is just one of a number of new holidays that have received more attention and presented more merchandising opportunities in the last few years (“Single’s Day,” which makes for a much less somber 11/11 than does Armistice Day, is another). I had dinner in a mall on Christmas Eve which was crawling with shoppers vying to take advantage of special sales coinciding with the holiday. The surrounding streets had a decidedly festive air, with street vendors hawking Christmas-themed toys and balloons everywhere.

Mixed in with the raw capitalism, though, is some rather interesting cultural ingenuity. There is the new

Wrapped apples for sale on Christmas

Chinese tradition of eating an apple on Christmas, which arises, like many Chinese traditions, out of a linguistic homophone. The Chinese translation for Christmas Eve —pinganye 平安夜, or “peaceful night”–shares a homphone with the word for apple, pingguo 苹果. Among the balloon and toy vendors on Christmas eve were people selling apples wrapped in colorful tissue paper and cellophane–and at a shockingly hiked price of 7-8 RMB each. Christmas also provides yet another excuse for Chinese young people to engage in one of their favorite pastimes–forwarding cute holiday text messages and emails to all of their friends. On any holiday, Chinese or Western–even Thanksgiving–one can expect to receive corny poems and other holiday greetings forwarded along throughout the day. Unlike in the US, chain forwarding in China is not simply the purview of the idle and elderly.

Out of all of the homegrown Chinese Christmas traditions I’ve heard of though, the most interesting one was reported to me by a Teach For China Fellow currently teaching in Yunnan. In the city of Dali, a popular tourist destination in Yunnan, street vendors appear in the early afternoon to sell masks and cans of Silly String. Once darkness falls, the city erupts into a free-for-all war of brightly-colored foam, and the masks provide much-needed protection.

I know that, as far as cultural observations in a blog by an American about China go, these are pretty

The Chinese word for Santa Claus 圣诞老人 literally means, "Christmas Old Man"

ordinary. At the same time, though, I think there’s a more profound lesson in a comment made by one of my companions at Christmas Eve dinner (hot pot, what else). She referred to the eating of apples as the bentuhua 本土化, or localization, of Christmas. At Teach For China we talk about “bentuhua” a lot–we know that, in order to gain the confidence and collaboration from principals, government, and Chinese donors, it will be essential to run an organization that adequately addresses the unique realities of the communities and the culture that we’re working in. The same goes for any nonprofit or business in China–you can only have a real impact, or turn a profit, if you can adapt your model to the local context.

Seeing as it’s been another three months since I’ve managed to write a blog, I can safely conclude that gainful employment is bad for my blogging career. I could say that I’m making a New Years resolution to work on that, but no promises.

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