At this time of year, communities across the world are gearing up to celebrate Christmas. In the United Kingdom, many will be preparing turkey and crackers for the 25th of December. In Russian Orthodox communities, January 7th is the day for sweet treats and festivities.
In China, a predominantly atheist country with a small proportion of Christians, Christmas is just another working day. However, the Chinese Christmas experience has been gradually changing over the recent years.
Chinese businesses increasingly have started to incorporate a commercial Christmas theme into their winter seasons. It has sparked online discussion amongst netizens on what the influx of Jingle Bells at this time of year means to them.
According the Council on Foreign Relations, Chinese law allows what is described as “normal religious activities” that do not “engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” The Chinese Communist Party is atheist and Christmas is not a public holiday.
The Mandarin for Christmas (圣诞节, shèngdànjié) roughly translates as “The Festival of the Holy Birth,” however Christmas in China is mostly commercial rather than religious. While some churches will hold Christmas services, Christmas in China mostly seems to be about shopping. Online and in-store, the festive season revolves around retail promotions using secular American and Eurocentric depictions of a white-bearded Santa and reindeer.
This trend shows no signs of stopping, and the idea of a Christmas period or ‘style’ has been growing year on year. This leads to mixed reactions from those keen to participate and those who are frustrated by the holiday hubbub.
Most Chinese citizens do not observe Christmas Day, but China’s foreigner community is often a source of events and parties organized for those who are away from home during the holidays. In Beijing, for example, a SantaCon event* has been held every December for the past few years. SantaCon participants, both local and foreign, dress as shengdan laoren (Santa Claus), sing Christmas songs, and tour the city together. *(SantaCon is a public gathering of ‘Santas’ for a pubcrawl or other activities, a tradition that started in 1994 San Fransisco).
Other similarly-themed public and private events involving fancy-dress, karaoke, Christmas dinners and partying are numerous in Beijing and other Chinese cities in December, despite the fact that this may not be the traditional way it is celebrated back home.
“Christmas is the chance to try out new foods and socialize in a style that is different from the norm.”
For many, the Christmas events and parties are just another chance to meet new people and learn more about other cultures. Former Beijing exchange student Raf tells What’s on Weibo: “Oddly enough, [it] isn’t something I’d do back in my hometown – it was something I only participated in during my time as a foreign exchange student in Beijing. It really felt like a great bonding experience of culture-sharing with your fellow expats when you’re handing out candy and singing Western Christmas carols.” Local citizens were “receptive and pretty welcoming in our revelries,” he adds.
For restaurants, the Christmas season is also a great opportunity to provide bespoke menus. Traditional Chinese celebrations such as Spring Festival are the perfect time for Chinese cuisine, however in December, many restaurants in larger international cities have begun to offer menus containing foods like cheese, baked bread and chocolate.
After welcoming esteemed chef Uwe Opocensky, Beef & Liberty Restaurant in Shanghai has noticed a rise in demand for more festive flavours that are not typically found in Chinese cuisine.
“We created a proper Christmas menu for bigger party bookings,” Taylor Yang from Beef & Liberty’s marketing team told What’s on Weibo: “All the items in there are the favorite Beef & Liberty items with some added festival elements. For example, the warm cookie is a regular popular item on our menu, and we added in orange and cinnamon elements to call it our Christmas cookie – it’s definitely a crowd pleaser.”
It seems that part of the appeal of Christmas is the chance to try out new foods and socialize in a style that is different from the norm.
“In China, Christmas is seen as a fashionable expression of the winter season.”
Despite the foods, costumes, and parties, Christmas in China is not entirely imported from a monolithic idea of ‘Western culture.’ Also influencing large portions of the country’s consumers is nearby South Korea, credited for creating a wave of cultural influence over its neighbors via the soft power channels of pop music, films and television.
According to data gathered by the Pew Research Centre in 2010, Christians accounted for just over five percent of the population in China, compared to almost thirty percent in South Korea. One facet of South Korea’s exported cultural wave is that it rarely alters its content for its foreign consumers.
It is therefore easy to see why the majority of Korean companies operating in China still offer Christmas promotions, such as cosmetic company Innisfree’s ‘Green Christmas’ range.
Over time, Chinese businesses have also utilized Christmas-themed campaigns. Popular hashtags on Weibo include “The best Christmas presents” (#圣诞节最佳礼物#) and Miaopai’s photography-themed “Snap-Crazy Christmas” (#疯拍圣诞节#). This altogether creates a sense that rather than a religious celebration, Christmas in China is seen as a fashionable expression of the winter season.
Despite South Korea and the many other countries and worldwide communities that celebrate Christmas, in online discussions, Christmas in China is often presented hand-in-hand with the West, described as “a foreign” or “Western” festival. Some worry that the Christmas promotions and deals are incompatible with traditional Chinese culture.
In December 2015 a group of Hunan high school students dressed in traditional Chinese clothing (hanfu), protested by holding red placards reading “Boycott Christmas – don’t celebrate foreign festivals.”
“I don’t believe in Christianity and I don’t believe in God. Why would I celebrate the birth of Jesus?”
In response to these protests, netizen Sakura (@百斩少女刘兔兔), who has over ten thousand followers on Weibo, posted pictures of herself wearing hanfu dress in front of a Christmas tree with the caption “I want to tell everybody, as a true advocate of reviving traditional culture, wonderful cultures from both East and West can coexist. Boycott this negative hype, let’s calmly and confidently walk together.”
Discussions over the phrase “boycott Christmas” have since been floating around the web. Often in reaction to the commercial hashtags, some netizens express frustration at the festive frenzy and imply that many forget that rather than just an excuse to socialize and buy things, Christmas is primarily a Christian holiday that is not officially celebrated in China.
“Boycott Western Christmas!” says one Weibo user (@不良风气播报员): “People get so excited about Western festivals. The 25th rolls around and there’s so much trash, so many Santa hats, Christmas trees, Christmas clothes, bells, Santas – it all ends up on the trash heap. Protect the environment and boycott Christmas – oh, I mean Jesus’ birthday!”
@NewStar says: “Boycott Christmas. I don’t believe in Christianity and I don’t believe in God. Why would I celebrate the birth of Jesus? I celebrate Spring Festival, and I believe in my ancestors!”
However, others on Weibo use the phrase a little more light-heartedly: “Boycott Christmas, start the countdown to Spring Festival,” one Weibo user says: “But…the Christmas trees and Hello Kitty’s are just so sparkly, I love them.”
“Mother’s Day is from the West, Christmas is also from the West, so why do some people boycott Christmas but celebrate Mothers’ Day?”
Some netizens are purely excited for Christmas-themed coziness, hot chocolate and fairy lights. “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!” writes @LittleGoddessClassroom adding a Santa emoji: “I heard we’re posting Christmas pictures. Good stuff is coming our way!”
In the midst of the debate, some have also explained that boycotting Christmas is not necessarily a matter of ‘East vs West’, but more about maintaining what they view to be traditional Chinese culture: “Mother’s Day is from the West, Christmas is also from the West, so why do some people boycott Christmas and yet rightly celebrate Mothers’ Day?” writes @MrJ-fans.
In a Weibo blog post, one author (@祝太太像宋慧乔) wrote that while Christmas is too small-scale to threaten traditional Chinese festivals, young people in particular embrace Christmas not necessarily for cultural reasons, but, as in the aforementioned fancy-dress events, in order to socialize: “Christmas is about merriment, getting together and enjoying oneself. Christmas songs, Christmas trees, Santa and presents are all for this purpose. You’d be hard-pressed to find another traditional holiday that has so many festive elements.”
Despite varied responses, the general consensus seems to be that while many are getting into the seasonal spirit, most netizens are mostly looking forward to the approaching Spring Festival.
China’s recent restaurant promotions, business campaigns, and online trends show that with the growth of globalization, there is an increased desire to engage with ‘trends’ and cultures from across the world. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that traditional Chinese culture, nor the Chinese internet, will be hijacked by Christmas hashtags anytime soon; the revelry surrounding Christmas is still vastly surpassed by the festivities that take place during the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Let’s not forget that China’s annual televised Spring Festival Gala remains one of the most-watched programs in the world. Despite the Santa hats and Christmas decoration, many stores in China have already begun selling the scarlet Chinese New Year decorations.
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