A few years ago, my husband and I went to China to visit my parents. It was in early November, Hangzhou just began to get chilly, and the beautiful West Lake was covered with heavy clouds as if wearing a grey veil.
As we checked in to Shangri-la Hotel, my husband was surprised to see a huge Christmas tree, decorated with dazzling lights and sparkling adornments, in the mid of the lobby. He looked around quickly to make sure we were actually in China, and then murmured to me jokingly: “Isn’t this the ‘communist China’?”
For westerners, it may seem bizarre that celebrating Christmas has become so popular in China while most Chinese don’t believe in Christianity. In the West, even though Christmas has grown out of its original purpose as a Christian holiday to honor the birth of Christ, it still has its religious connotation. For example, my Jewish friends don’t celebrate Christmas. I believe most Muslins don’t celebrate Christmas either.
However, for Chinese, particularly among young people, celebrating Christmas is considered a fashionable thing to do rather than anything that has to do with religion. They see it as a sign of “being modern,” which struck me as an irony for a two thousand years old tradition. For them, Christmas is a time to have colorful decoration, to exchange gifts, and to relax and have fun with friends. As my mother put it: “oh, those foreign holidays – they are for the young people!”
The commercial part of Christmas may have played a big role in China too. Few children can resist the story of Santa Claus who is riding with reindeers in a sleigh to deliver their presents from the sky! My little niece, who was 7 years old at the time, was very excited about Christmas: “I want to have my stockings ready so that Santa can leave me gifts!” I noticed she didn’t say Santa would come in from the chimney since Chinese live in condominiums where there are no chimneys.
This reminded me of my American nephew. In the United States, most kids start to figure out that there is no Santa Claus by the age of 7, either being told by older kids or from their own logic thinking. However, for children who have grown up with their hopes and dreams in the fantasy of Santa Claus, it’s hard for them to come to this realization. My nephew, for example, refused to believe what other kids had told him and relentlessly held on to the idea that Santa actually came down from the chimney of his house and brought him all the wonderful presents. Imagine how sad and confused he was when he finally realized all these were not true. Some kids may even feel deceived and wonder why their parents are part of the game.
Although Chinese adopt Christmas for a very different reason, it is an indication that Chinese people, especially the young people who represent the future, are embracing different cultures and traditions. The question is how long is too long before people start to reflect on the deeper meaning of Christmas. We don’t have to be Christian to appreciate Jesus Christ’s teaching. Even after two thousand years, His teaching on “love thy neighbors” still has the significance: today, we are living in a global village, and “thy neighbors” may be across the globe.
It is my hope that one day children like my Chinese niece and my American nephew, although oceans apart, will celebrate the true spirit of Christmas together!