BEIJING –The Chinese keep “Christ” in the word “Christmas,” but they might have him confused with Santa.
A blue-eyed Santa with a bulbous nose, judging by holiday decorations in China’s capital city. It’s my first Christmas in this country since my husband and I decamped from Sacramento, and all the fake trees and blinking lights caught me by surprise.
“Did you celebrate Christmas when you were growing up?” I asked a Chinese-born reporter friend now working for an American news outlet.
“Oh, no,” she said. “This is just commercial.”
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Yes, China is Communist – “socialist with Chinese characteristics” is the current official term. And Communist China used to ban this most Christian of Christian holidays.
But Chinese factories have been churning out Christmas gewgaws for years. Between January and September alone, China shipped $1 billion worth of tree ornaments to the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, plus $137.5 million more in artificial trees.
So why should the Chinese wage war on Christmas? It’s making them money. Besides, the early Christians essentially hijacked a pagan holiday for their celebration of the birth of Jesus. You could say that the Chinese are returning the holiday to its roots.
Call it “Christmas with Chinese characteristics,” as The Economist recently quipped.
The season started before Thanksgiving, a holiday China has yet to embrace. At the MGM Macau casino resort, giant ornaments were hung from the ceiling with care. At Hong Kong International Airport, a piped-in saxophone harked the herald angels.
Then a tree appeared in the lobby of our Beijing apartment building. And at our language school. And at our gym, where the trainers have also donned Santa hats.
But outdoor light displays seem especially popular – with good reason. Beijing winters are frigid. Coal soot often sullies the air. A Chinese Christmas goes a long way to make the darkness light.
The blue-eyed Santas could stick around past Chinese New Year, but one of the reasons for this season will endure far longer.
Say what you will about commerce and Christmas, we Americans have also helped turn the holiday into a celebration of friends and family worldwide. Which is why, as this photo suggests, people here never tire of posing with the lights and their loved ones.
Whether inspired by Christ or by Santa, that’s a Chinese characteristic worth keeping.
Micaela Massimino was assistant editor at The Sacramento Bee’s Capitol bureau before her husband, Stuart Leavenworth, became McClatchy Newspapers’ Beijing bureau chief. Contact her at email@example.com.