China: It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

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By Alister Beecher

As we go deeper into December, already the remnants from Beijing’s first snowfall in late November have melted away and Chinese New Year - the country’s most important festival – is still two months away. However, a growing number of locals have something else to get excited about. Christmas and Christianity have long been banned in China, but if you wander around the major cities today, you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. 

Deng Xiaoping, leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1978 to 1989, is credited with the greatest revolutionary change into what we know as China today. On foreign policy, Deng once famously said ‘Fresh air will come in when you open a window, but so will flies’ (打开窗户,新鲜空气会进来,苍蝇也会飞进来). And when Deng ‘opened up’ China to the Western world with the intention of pursuing a program for major economic reform, he also stimulated the adoption and adaptation of Western culture, consumption habits, and behaviours amongst Chinese society. Today, it is predominantly the younger generation who are familiar with and willing to participate in the new found Western traditions such as Christmas.

As an international metropolis with a growing number of foreigners working and visiting for business, the commercial aspect of Christmas is clearly visible along Beijing’s busy boulevards. Smart shopkeepers don't lose any opportunity to make a quick RMB. Life-size Santa Claus figures and Christmas trees adorn many of the shopping malls and streetscapes, Christmas carols float between stores, and retail staff dress up as Santa Claus and his helpful elves, or “Santa’s sisters” as they are referred to in China. 

Christmas has become a booming business in China. Like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, more and more Chinese are taking part in Western celebrations. Although traditions are new Christmas has already developed its own Chinese characteristics just like so many foreign customs adopted by China. For the majority, it is an excuse to see friends and enjoy a date with a partner, exchange gifts and shop. “Christmas apples” are a common gift – pingguo (苹果), the world for apple in Mandarin sounds like pingan (平安), the word for peace or Christmas Eve.

Long before Christmas took hold in China’s cities, its factories were producing candy canes and stockings for export. According to state-run Xinhua news agency, approximately 60% of Christmas trinkets worldwide come from Yiwu in the eastern Zhejiang province. If you’ve ever purchased an artificial Christmas tree with a set of baubles, tinsel, kitsch Christmas decorations and partywear, chances are it will have been produced in Yiwu. 

In China’ secular society,  the vast majority of the population only believe in Chinese folk religions, but the city of Wenzhou, also in Zhejiang province, is an exception. For centuries it has been a hub of Christian missionary activity. Today it remains an important centre of Christianity in China; with the largest number of churches in the country. The city's Christians number at least one million - about 11% of the local population; much higher than the national figure of 2.3%.

While religious practice nationwide remains tightly regulated by the government, it is still tolerated. However, in smaller cities and rural provinces across China's hinterland, there are far fewer Christians and the people have had much less contact with foreigners, so Christmas is still a mystery, especially for older generations.

Nevertheless, if you’re visiting China this December, don’t be surprised to be greeted by retail staff in Santa hats and reindeer antlers: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is one buck the Chinese are eager to make.

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