Christmas in China: from holy day to holiday

Giant Christmas trees, jingle bells playing in every store and children running around to see a glimpse of Santa Claus. Walking through any commercial district in China’s larger cities you can impossibly deny it: Christmas has conquered the People’s Republic of China. Commercial circus or religious influence?

It used to be only a small Christian minority that silently celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ at home. The practice of sitting together and reading the bible was sometimes extended with a visit of the preacher. The celebration of Christmas was even more secreted with Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1949 when all Western influences were banned as much as possible. For most Chinese it became simply an academic term until the country slowly opened up again.

And this is the result. A Christmas fairytale that the younger generations embrace without really being aware of its religious background. A growing number of Chinese have drinks and dinners with friends on Christmas Eve, send each other Christmas cards and exchange small presents. Some families are inspired by the enormous quantities of Christmas decorations that China exports to the West and decide to put up their own, artificial Christmas tree. Children hang up muslin stockings hoping that Dun Che Lao Ren, the Chinese version of Santa Claus, will visit and leave presents. Yet, they attend school like any other day of the week. The shops are open and parents go to work.

Although a substantial number of Chinese do go to church – a one percent minority still applies to about fourteen million people – most Chinese citizens overlook the holiday’s religious roots. The increased popularity of Christmas is based on other factors than religion and its explanations vary per social group. The youth’s interest in celebrating it stems from their broader identification with western culture. Coca Cola commercials explain it all. Store owners have recognized the enormous commercial potential that Christmas brings about. Initially producing for the growing western expat community in the big cities, they now focus their attention on their compatriots too. Their santa-hat-wearing store clerks seem to be a great success.

China is a fine example of how a religious holy day can turn into a commercial holiday. Yet, let us be honest, how many Europeans still consider it purely as the honoring of the birth of Jesus Christ?

Happy Christmas.

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