Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

“Another excuse to buy gifts!” A Chinese friend replied when I asked about her Christmas plans.

In the West, everyone loves Christmas. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are much-anticipated national holidays that everyone is eager to spend with his or her loved ones. The hype starts with familiar Christmas songs playing in public space, local governments decorating streets with lights and stores advertising their Christmas specials. Christmas markets pop up in Western European countries for people to buy gifts for loved ones while indulging on seasonal delicacies such as mulled wine.

Amidst all this hoopla there is a distant remembrance that Christmas is meant to celebrate the birth of the Christian Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The link between Christmas and Jesus continues to dwindle over time. Christmas, at least the capitalist version of it, is celebrated by atheists and Christians with equal consumer-oriented fanfare.

The Chinese version of Christmas

China is no exception. As China begins opening up, it becomes vulnerable to the widespread Western cultural imperialism.

China’s economy is increasingly capitalistic and so brings forth all the bells and whistles of that market structure. Christmas is a tremendous business opportunity for companies in the West, and they hope to replicate those profit margins in the massive Chinese market.

Christmas decorations at a mall in Shanghai (source: martalivesinchina)

There is a psychological tug-of-war between Chinese people’s reverence for their culture versus their aspirations of modernity — which is unfortunately equated with Westernization. Sadly, a global phenomenon witnesses countries with rich traditions abandoning their customs for Western ones. With Christmas around the corner, the manner in which the holiday is growing in China is a fascinating example of changing norms in China.

The fact that China’s middle class is multiplying is no secret. People have more disposable income than ever before. For China’s millennials, Christmas is meant for couples, and yet one more opportunity to spend their money. The combination of beautifully wrapped gifts and a Western holiday is alluring to them. Christmas here, as in most places, is commemorated with consumption rather than prayer.

Apples for Christmas Eve

Chinese people attribute great meaning to numerology and the significance of the characters used in their language. And almost all Chinese holidays are associated with a traditional dish that is believed to bring good fortune. In this context, for example, people buy their loved one’s apples on Christmas Eve because the word for “apple” in Mandarin (pronounced as ‘píngguǒ’) sounds like ‘peace’ in English (Mandarin: ‘píng ān’) and bears a resemblance to ‘píng ān yè’, the Chinese word for ‘Christmas Eve’.

apples for Christmas Eve in China (source: tech-food)

Dec. 24 – 25 aren’t national holidays here, because the number of Chinese Christians is estimated to be under 5%, according to data by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Origins of Christmas- Birth of Jesus?

If you look back at the origin of the Christmas holiday, a few disturbing facts come to light.

Firstly, although Christmas began with the presumed intention of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, those pioneering the holiday were well aware that Jesus was not born in December.

Secondly, the now famous Santa Claus (called an ‘Old Christmas Man’, aka ‘Shèngdàn Lǎorén’ in Chinese) is a resemblance of the Dutch ‘Saint Nicolas’ and portrays an incredibly offensive and racist character as his ‘helper’.

There are three theories on the timing of Jesus’ birth, each with a varying degree of persuasiveness.

Christmas and Jesus (source: christiantoday)

Firstly, Jesus was born when sheep and Shepherds roamed the land, and they would not be outside after the end of September. This doesn’t point September directly as His time of birth, but it does eliminate the winter season as a likely time of birth.

Secondly, Jesus was born at the time when Emperor Caesar Augustus called for a census. Logistically, this would be difficult to carry out during winter.

The third reason is that when Bible is studied to compare the birth of Jesus with other Biblical events, a glaring truth becomes clear. John the Baptist’s mother was six months pregnant with him with Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Fourthly, the Bible shows that Jesus was born in early fall by counting backwards from the date of His crucifixion.

So how did the birth of Jesus come to be celebrated arbitrarily on Dec. 25? It was a political choice. Roman emperor Aurelian ruled in 270 — 275, during which he established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on Dec. 25 as part of the Roman Winter Solstice. This Winter Solstice was widely popular and of great religious significance to the Pagans. A theory says shortly after that, Christians chose Dec. 25 to commemorate the birth of Jesus to co-opt the Pagan Winter Solstice to eliminate the latter and make Christianity more appealing to them, in the hopes that they would convert.

Santa Claus is a fictional character that draws inspiration from the incredibly offensive Sinterklaas of the Netherlands, which implies racism. The Dutch Sinterklaas, an old white man with an epic beard, is based on the Dutch Saint Nicholas, who is believed to have looked after children. In 1850, Jan Schenkman elaborated upon the tale of Sinterklaas by adding the character Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a man painted with blackface as a ‘helper’.

Sinterklaas in Netherlands (source: parlourmagazine)

Many argue that Black Pete is, in fact, a slave of Sinterklaas. However, some say that the blackface comes from him going down the chimney to deliver gifts. This is a thinly veiled excuse for racism and discrimination. If the blackface comes from the chimney, then why are his clothes spotless?

Another disturbing factor, at least from a Christian perspective, is the eerie similarities between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. In the West, both are portrayed as white men with beards, and Christians believe Jesus to be the only all-knowing and omniscient Son of God. As a Christian, I ask myself: why are attributes my faith only associates with God are transplanted into those of a fictional character as part of the celebration of the birth of God?

About Westernization

China, like other developing countries, should preserve its culture and be discerning when adopting Western elements.

Westernization is not synonymous with progress. The West bears the burden of brutal colonial and neocolonial strategies that have destroyed billions of lives. On occasion, their practices are subtle and insidious, for example, the racist roots of Santa Claus and the obsession with consumerism. If Western culture is embraced across the world, there is a grave risk of countries willingly diluting their traditions.

Fortunately, forces are attempting to combat the trend of Western cultural imperialism. One of the reasons that Black Panther broke the U.S. record for Box Office sales for Super Hero movies and grosses over $1.3 billion in sales worldwide is that it depicts a highly advanced country that hasn’t adopted any Western elements. Aptly so, the most significant Caucasian character in the movie is referred to as a “colonizer”. 

While the battle against Western cultural imperialism grows, the time has come for Christians to re-evaluate the meaning of the Christmas season. For those of us who identify as Christians and live in a capitalist environment, we need to seriously re-evaluate our priorities and celebrate the birth of our Lord biblically. One option is to leave the mostly capitalist Christmas holiday as it is and commemorate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in September.

Featured photo taken in Sanlitun, Beijing