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Santa Claus is coming to town?

Christmas in China is a really funny thing. Let’s call it 奇怪(qi-guai), a word that means “strange” but without any negative or positive connotations. You get a full month for quiet reflection, but miss all of the fun and merriment of the Christmas spirit. There are friends you spend special meals with, and there is still some shopping you have to do. After four years, I’m still not sure if I like it or dread it.

Christmas is still kind of new in China. During the missionary period up to the revolution Christmas was a quiet religious holiday. The hospital and local universities had many special Christmas performances to try and spread the Gospel. Then President Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Madame Soong, attended many of these events at the Ginling Girls School, where Minnie Vautrin served in the 30’s and 40’s.

Today Christmas has returned, but more in shopping malls and fancy restaurants than in the hospital or schools (I’ve had to remind them a few times which day it is). It is interesting to see what a holiday looks like in its early stages before the traditions are really in place.

In the malls here Christmas decorations have been up for almost a month now, which seems to be a little late compared to shopping centers in the US, but it will be another full month before those decorations will come down. One gets the feeling that many of the people don’t really know when Christmas is, and that Santa is just a winter thing that goes with Frosty the Snowman. Christmas in some ways has started to mark the early part of preparing for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), much like the day after Thanksgiving is the time to put up the Christmas tree, and New Years is the day to take it down in the US.

Also sometimes people will try to emulate the American traditions, for example the other day one of my students/co-workers gave me a very nice Christmas card. The outside was decorated beautifully and when I returned to my office I eagerly opened it to see what kind words she had written inside. I was baffled by what I saw inside, nothing. She had simply given me a blank card for Christmas. Somewhere along the line one of our traditions seems to have been misunderstood in a big way.
Another thing that makes Christmas feel a bit off here in China is that everyone will be working on the 25th. Only foreign teachers are granted the day off, for some reason Christmas hasn’t made the Communist Party’s official list of holidays yet (an omission surely worthy of a place on Santa’s naughty list).

Then this morning, as I waited for the bus, a woman was handing out papers to everyone with some very basic information about Christianity with a brief introduction to the Christmas story. Only a few people took time to read them, but it was encouraging to see.


4 Comments

  1. Seven says:

    It seems no religious days, not only Christian days, are official holidays in China.

    • Tom says:

      Some of the current holidays were religious in a looser sense of the word, like Qingming festival that can be celebrated without visiting a temple or church, but you are right, no major religious holidays.

  2. PNS says:

    I had qualms about commenting on an old post; but the sense of entitlement and cultural arrogance that seep out of these paragraphs are so noxious that I felt compelled to say something.
    Why would the Chinese ever consider making Christmas a public holiday when the percentage of practicing Christians in the population is a single-digit number, when their culture has been based on a value system parallel to, not encompassed in, that of Christianity? To suggest that it has something to do with China’s form of government is nothing more than wild conjecture. If they do want to pick a religious holiday, wouldn’t make more sense to choose a Buddhist one? Or a Muslim one? Last time I checked, the teachings of the sage from Lumbini carry more cultural currency than the Star of Bethlehem.
    Christmas was not a public holiday back in the Republican era. Neither is it a public holiday in countries like Japan, South Korea or Israel. What dark forces are at work here? Or is it that you think religious freedom is only meaningful when it is showered on the followers of Christ?
    Will you be so cavalier about it if people propose making Ullambana or Ramadan public holidays in the United States? What is truly “off” here is that you would expect Christmas, a religious holiday, to be the same 9,000+ miles away from your home country.

    • Tom says:

      Wow, I think you might have brought quite a bit of your own feelings about religion to the table when reading that post.
      I didn’t say that China should make Christmas a public holiday, I was simply writing in a joking matter that we have to work on Christmas here, which was actually news to some people back in the states (It may be important for you to note that Santa’s naughty list may not be a real thing).
      Also I did not say that Christmas was a public holiday in the Republican era, I was just reporting on how it was celebrated by foreigners at that time.
      I think that the article was perfectly clear in reporting that these were the differences, not that I thought these were things that should be changed.
      Finally, in response to “Will you be so cavalier about it if people propose making Ullambana or Ramadan public holidays in the United States?”
      Absolutely. Freedom for some is, Freedom for none.

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