Merry Christmas everybody, I hope wherever you are in the world you are full of food and merriment and all the rest. (Merriment, there is a word you don’t hear outside December)
For my sins I am at work. Christmas is not a holiday in China and even if it was, I work at a newspaper so I’d probably be stuck in the office anyway, but nevermind! Some of the foreign staff are ducking out to the restaurant next door for a Peking Duck Christmas lunch and I celebrated with rather a lot of merriment last night.
I wanted to write this post to tell you a little about Christmas in China.
A few weeks ago my Chinese language tutor, Ivy, told me her husband had suggested they go to church on Christmas, to find out what it was actually all about.
“Oh, you don’t have to go to church for that,” I said. “I’ll tell you about Christmas”.
I explained the basics of the Christmas story, Joseph, Mary and the manger, the three wise men etc. Ivy listened seriously but when I finished her brow furrowed with confusion.
“But where does Santa Claus fit in?” she asked.
Christmas carols have been playing in the bakery down the street, and my office has stuck a tree up in the lobby, but if you are one of those types who moan that the religious aspect of Christmas has been lost in the West, then you best avoid China in December.
Imagine you had never heard of Christmas and then sat through a marathon of the most saccharine American Christmas films and then had to figure out the most appropriate way to celebrate. That’s kinda what Christmas in China feels like. The best comparison I can think of is Halloween in Australia. Not really celebrated but pushed upon us by shops smelling a profit or celebrated because it’s a bit of fun with friends. It’s not a serious holiday and its ignored by the majority.
There is a religious aspect of course, Christianity has been in and out of China for centuries thanks to the Silk Road and later on, missionaries. These days there are an estimated 67 million Christians in China – a drop in the ocean of a nation of 1.3 billion. People do practice Christianity openly but there are restrictions – Catholic friends tell me to go to midnight mass you need to get a ticket in advance to attend, and whether a midnight mass actually happens or not is only announced at the last minute because the church has to get permission from authorities to hold services.
One fairly unique Chinese Christmas tradition is the giving of apples. I had noticed shelves of cellophane wrapped apples with red and green ribbon in the 7/11 and was wondering what they were for. A friend explained to me that Silent Night, translated to Chinese, is Ping an ye. This sounds a little like the Chinese word for apple, ping guo – hence a very Chinese Christmas tradition.
Many shops sell Santa dolls with the man in red playing the saxophone. Why? No one is quite sure, but this blog from the Washington Post suggests it might be because for many Chinese, Santa and the sax have a lot in common – they are both foreign and a bit cool.
But my favourite Christmas decoration I have seen in China is a giant Christmas… Pony? Reindeer? Unicorn? that has been erected outside the Raffles Hotel on a major intersection. I have no idea how it fits into Christmas, but it’s certainly been a talking point.
I will leave you now with a song from my fellow West Australian Tim Minchin. Pretty much sums up everything about an Aussie being away for Christmas.
Merry Christmas everybody, 圣诞快乐！ Stay well.
Nice post Belle. I also saw that unicorn near raffles. I have no idea what connection it’s supposed to have to Christmas.
Thanks Jimmy, maybe there is a little known Christmas unicorn story out there somewhere…
Your family enjoyed your Chinese Christmas reflections this Christmas as I read it out to the 30+ family gathered around the christmas table feasting on an amazing selection of food. Tim Minchin’s song makes me cry…it does strike a heart chord!