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It’s Christmas Time in the City (of Beijing)

December 17, 2008

The air is cold, the dulcet tones of the old traditional carols echo through the shopping malls, lavishly ornamented conifers are everywhere, and the benign face of Santa Claus stares out from every restaurant window. ‘Tis the season here in Beijing, indeed.

Christmas decoration outside Xizhimen shopping centre, Beijing.

Christmas decoration outside Xizhimen shopping centre, Beijing.

I’m exaggerating, of course – not quite every restaurant has Santa Claus on the premises. However, the right jolly old elf is ubiquitous at the moment, as are Christmas trees, Christmas carols (often sung in chirpy Mandarin) and Christmas decorations. This is all the more surprising because China has few Christians, the prevailing organised religious currents being Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian. There are also plenty of Muslims, especially in the western “autonomous region” of Xinjiang, and many Chinese practice a “folk religion” that revolves largely around ancestor worship and the veneration of legendary figures such as the Yellow Emperor and the hero Guan Yu. Others have no religion at all.

Despite the low profile of Christianity in China, Beijing has embraced Christmas with remarkable equanimity. Signs around the city, printed in English, are much more likely to say “Merry Christmas” than “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays”, even though Canadians would regard these rather anaemic alternatives as more culturally inclusive and less closely shackled to Christian tradition. The explanation, I suspect, is simply that the Chinese see the West enjoying a mysterious festival called “Christmas” and are eager to join the fun. They have no interest in adopting the religious aspects along with the music, the decorations, and the holiday atmosphere, but they also have no need to pretend that they are importing some vague “holiday season” rather than a specific celebration. The “War on Christmas” has no traction in China.

As an atheist with a strong sentimental attachment to Christmas, I find this approach highly congenial, and I would like to see it adopted more widely in Canada. Aside from its explicit religious associations, Christmas has become so ingrained in Western culture over the centuries that it seems bizarre and ahistorical to wish people “Happy Holidays”, particularly when we all know that “the holidays” would not exist if not for Christmas. I would much rather wish friends and relatives “Merry Christmas”, put up a nativity scene in a nod to Christian mythology, deck the halls with evergreen boughs in observance of much older Western traditions about the persistence of life and vitality through deathly winter, and then unwrap some presents. Meanwhile, Christians can darken the doors of churches and continue to actually believe those touching old stories about the virgin birth and the choirs of angels. The two approaches can coexist perfectly well, with each other and with the complete indifference of people for whom Christmas has neither religious nor cultural appeal.

Speaking of Christmas, I’ll be leaving soon to spend a couple of weeks with my parents and grandparents in Victoria, B.C. There may be a blog post or two, but at this point I won’t promise to put up anything new before January.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    December 18, 2008 8:57 pm

    Scott — One of the things that surprises me about Christmas with Chinese Characteristics is that, if anything, it’s somewhat less consumerist than our Canadian version. The shopping malls aren’t really any more crowded than usual, and I get the impression that the practice of giving presents on Christmas is just starting to catch on here.

    I fully agree that “Merry Christmas” shouldn’t offend anyone, and that it’s nice to see a drift away from the religious aspects. So Merry Christmas, in a purely cultural sense, and I’ll see you in the New Year!

  2. Scott Y permalink
    December 18, 2008 5:16 am

    Actually Cor, I think the Chinese (read: consumer) version of Christmas may prove to be a better mirror of Christmas in North America than the traditional Dickensian (see: Its a Wonderful Life) notion of a Christian Christmas. Every year, I’ve found Christmases in Canada are becoming more agnostic than religious, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I feel as if the majority of Canadians are moving away from the religious aspects of Christmas and toward the ‘goodwill to all men and peace on earth’ aspects.

    (Caveat: Mind you, I’m an agnostic who actually celebrates the family-and-friends part of Christmas instead of that pizazz about the birth of Christ, so I see this as an encouraging trend.)

    Personally, I think most non-Christians (incl. religious non-Christians) understand the benign intent of ‘Merry Christmas’, which is essentially synonymous with: good health, cheers, best wishes, congratulations, etc, and in fact, appreciate the sentiment. Most of my non-Christian friends don’t take offense at it; in fact, last year I received a Christmas card from a Sikh family.

    My Christmas wish is that hopefully one day, we’ll have the emotional maturity to not care about benignly intended words (PC be damned) and actually be able to talk about substantive issues.

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