Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, December 29, 2008

I have really come to like Christmas in China. In some ways, it is more hectic, because there is no Christmas holiday in China. Foreigners are allowed the holiday, so that does give one an excuse to reschedule classes, but that is not always so easy, and my classes cannot be taught by anyone else. If I am not there, they miss out--that's the bottom line.

But, in fact, it is really less hectic, because Christmas in China is not about gifts. The merchants in China would like to change that, but they are so inexperienced with it, that they just don't have a clue how to go about it. For example, the stores, including the Walmart Super Store near my home, do not sell Christmas wrap. There are professional wrappers who charge an arm and a leg to do it for you, but, of course, no one in their right mind wants to do that. The whole market environment is just not set up to encourage Christmas shopping. It was a bit of a nuisance at first, but I have come to really appreciate it. China is so wonderfully free of the gift obsession that characterizes American Christmas.

The day after Christmas, I asked my students how their Christmas was. One of them said, "Perfect." I said, "What did you get for Christmas?" He said, "Nothing." Can you imagine an American student describing as "perfect" a Christmas without presents? Obviously, I was curious. I said, "What did you do for Christmas?" He said, "I gave some flowers to my girlfriend." I said, "I want to shake your hand. You're a wise man."

Part of the reason that Christmas is a little slow in catching on, in China is because in order for Christmas to work, you have to have at least some true believers. American Christians bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, but in fact, that commercialization is possible because there are so many people in America who celebrate the holiday--I mean, as the birth of Christ. In China, the number of people who really think of Christmas as the birth of their Saviour is certainly growing. But the largest part of that segment of the community (merchants) that would like to see Christmas developed, is really quite uninformed as to what Christmas is really all about.

Church is the one place where one is most likely to be reminded of the true meaning of Christmas. But there are some differences there, too. I don't imagine you would find Santa lashed to the foot of the cross at an American church. To many American Christians, Santa Claus epitomizes the secularization of Christmas that is so pervasive in America. But in China, Santa Claus goes to church. From an historical standpoint, the Chinese have it right. The original Saint Nicholas was a churchman known for providing money to help young women get out of prostitution. But the Santa at Haidian Church doesn't really look that saintly. He's quite American. The present Santa Claus image was developed by cartoonist Thomas Nast during the American Civil War. The stories of Saint Nicholas had been brought to New Amsterdam (New York) by Dutch immigrants. But America changed Santa Claus forever, and he hasn't been the same since. In a sense, Santa Claus is a testimony to the extraordinary influence of things American on China's popular culture. And that is a good thing, and it is a bad thing.

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