In the United States we talk a lot about our trade deficit with China. Without a doubt, China exports many more goods to the US than the US does to China. But when it comes to trading culture, the situation is reversed. The Chinese import much more culture from the US than they export. And no American cultural export is more visible than Christmas.
On the surface, Christmas in China looks somewhat similar to the United States. Public spaces have seasonal decorations featuring the major commercial characters like Santa Claus (known to many of my students as “Father Christmas”) and Rudolph. In an attempt to inspire spending, store windows are frosted and decorated with trees and gifts. Shopping malls and grocery stores play Christmas carols in a loop over their sound systems.
But look closer, and some differences in the public displays present themselves. The most noticeable one is the animals. The Chinese do not limit themselves to reindeer or even common stable animals. Oh no, this is a celebration of the entire animal kingdom! The pictures below show you what I mean. Do you see what I see?
After seeing the following display, I thought I had the puzzle solved. Many of the animals in the other displays were also in the Chinese zodiac. But that still did not explain the giraffe and koala bear. Do you see what I see?
In general, despite the superficial similarities, Christmas is a very different celebration in China. While in the US the holiday focuses on family, very few Chinese families do anything at all related to Christmas.
To the contrary, Christmas is mostly celebrated by young people. For young couples, it is an excuse to be romantic, give a personal gift, and/or go on a date. It is akin to Valentines Day in the United States. For young singles, it is an excuse to go out for dinner or party with friends.
Furthermore, if you ask a Chinese student what the “true meaning” of Christmas is, you likely will not hear much about Christianity. When doing a lesson on Christmas traditions, I discovered that some of my students know about Jesus, but only to the same extent that most Americans Christians know about the Prophet Muhammed. For most people, Christmas is not a religious experience.
Tian and I are missing being in Minnesota during the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. From Beijing, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year!