A Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

 Two years ago, I spent the holiday season in Xining西寧, the capital of Qinghai 青海 Province. This city sits on the Tibetan plateau, over 1,000 miles from Beijing and the modern metropolises of China’s east coast. It is one of the last places on earth one would expect to find Christmas cheer, but it still manages to find its way there in the most unusual ways.

There are a surprising number of foreigners living in this city infused with Tibetan and Hui Muslim culture. They teach English, run coffee shops, or study Chinese or Tibetan language. Many are surreptitious Christian missionaries, but my unexpected encounters with Christmas had only the most tangential links with Christianity. If you think that Christmas in the U.S. has become too commercial and divorced from spirituality, perhaps the Chinese version that unapologetically celebrates commerce and generally ignores religion will make you feel a little better.

"Revolution is not a dinner party..." Mao Zedong
 During winter in Xining, and many other Chinese cities, the face of Santa Claus is everywhere. His disembodied head, with ample beard sprouting holiday trinkets, appears on virtually every shop window in Xining’s shopping district. Even a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant gets into the spirit. This chain nostalgically celebrates the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all Chinese lived on communes and ate out of one big pot, while conveniently ignoring the era’s strict dogmatism and suppression of any foreign, religious, traditional, or non-Maoist ideas. Santa Claus, a symbol of everything deemed evil during this period, decorates the glass doors that open onto a gold bust of Mao Zedong. I can just picture tourists fleeing in terror as the late chairman's body rolls over in its crystal coffin on display in Tiananmen 天安門 Square.

It's Chinese Christmas, Charlie Brown!
Santa is such a ubiquitous image that as a white man with a beard, I was often called “Santa Claus” or 聖誕老人, literally “Christmas Man.” Perhaps Mao would be comforted by the fact that I more often received the moniker of his personal favorite bearded white guy: Karl Marx.  

Of course, I never witnessed anyone masquerading as the father of Communism, but Chinese Santa Claus impersonators often make appearances at public wintertime events. To my knowledge, the strange American custom of having children pose for pictures on the lap of a strange man who works in a shopping mall has thus far not caught on in China, but Santas show up for all sorts of photo ops. I met a couple of Chinese Saint Nicks at the opening of a Snow and Ice Festival at a ski resort in the mountains outside Xining. They were hanging out with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, of course. While multiple Santas might cause confusion and heartbreak among American children, teams of Santas are par for the course in China.  

Little Santas on the way to the mall
Many Chinese children experience Christmas and other foreign novelties while learning basic facts about American culture in conjunction with study of the English language, a standard part of the curriculum for most Chinese public schools. During December, a foreign teacher asked me to fill in for her during her school’s Christmas field trip. I joined a crowd of elementary school students as they rode chartered buses to a shopping mall (where else?). On the way, I led them in singing “I wish you a Merry Christmas.” I tried to teach them the first verse (“Good tidings we bring…”), but they stubbornly continued singing the only words they had learned, “I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” After singing the same phrase hundreds, maybe thousands of times, we met their parents at a grocery store in the mall. There, they picked out items that they could name in English for their parents to buy. My job was to stand at the checkout and verify that they could correctly name their purchases. To these kids (or at least their teachers) speaking English and buying stuff was what Christmas was all about.   

I'm dreaming of a pink Christmas,
because white is the color of mourning.
However, Chinese Christmas is not just the modern American holiday with commercial characteristics emphasized and religious aspects excised. Some traditions are Chinese originals, as far as I know. A Chinese friend called me on Christmas, saying that he thought of me while eating an apple on Christmas Eve. No, there is no special connection between either of us and the fruit. They say that the word for Christmas Eve in Chinese (ping’an ye 平安夜 ("silent night") sounds like the word for apple (pingguo 蘋果). Maybe they are closer in Cantonese or some other dialect. Regardless, many stores sell apples in fancy wrappers in December for use as gifts. My friend mentioned eating an apple as if it was a timeless Christmas Eve tradition, not realizing that few Americans would recognize any connection between the two.

A Chinese New Year "tree"
with Christmas characteristics
There is even one unusual and mysterious aspect of Christmas that is omnipresent in Xining year round. Instead of leaving garbage cans on the curb for regularly scheduled collection, garbage trucks blare music over loudspeakers to alert people to bring out the trash. Every day in Xining, one can hear them coming from blocks away, blaring Jingle Bells, I Wish You a Merry Christmas, or Joy to the World. I guess foreign songs and public waste collection both share an association with modernity. And perhaps the upbeat tunes lend some cheer to the dirty job of waste collection, even though they are liable to cause hearing damage at the decibel levels used.  Or maybe this is a subtle effort by Communist hard-liners to associate foreign religions and capitalist excess with rubbish. 

Christmas is not a state-recognized holiday in China, and for most Chinese, the day itself comes and goes with little to no observances. In 2012, I went to dinner on Christmas night at a Tibetan restaurant with an American English teacher and some of her Tibetan friends. We talked and feasted and I sheepishly accepted a small gift from someone I just met, with nothing to give in exchange. The Chinese have a well-developed culture of gift-giving, which is not relegated to holidays, and this was neither the first nor the last time I felt guilty for being unable to adequately return a gift. But the one gift I vividly remember from that night was neither wrapped nor purchased, nor did I understand a word of it. A Tibetan girl who also felt sheepish because she had not brought a gift, sang us a Tibetan folk song that described her homeland, the different regions, customs, dialects, and people. It was simple, beautiful, and heartfelt, a perfect gift that you will not find in any mall or anywhere in the Western world. The only thing it shares with most conventional gifts is the fact that it was made in China.


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