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Christmas may be huge in China but what’s in it for religion?

BEIJING (SE): “Santa Claus was descending into China from the sky. Due to the heavy smog, he fell to the ground, but no one dared help him up. While he was still lying in the snow, his bag was ransacked for the Christmas goodies and his reindeer and sleigh taken away by the Chengguan (City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau). Therefore, there will be no Christmas this year!”
Robert Foyle Hunwick says in an article published in The Atlantic on the celebration of Christmas in China that this is a common joke doing the rounds in Beijing at present.
The little story is having a dig at China’s notorious bystander syndrome, famous for people walking on in times of emergency in the manner of the Good Samaritan parable, or even helping themselves to the spillage from someone’s mishap, as well as the much-despised Chengguan, but Hunwick maintains the broader meaning is clear.
“Ironic jokes about Santa’s routine being disrupted with uniquely Chinese characteristics are a sure sign that, yes, people in Communist China do know it is Christmas time,” he points out.
It falls within a season of high spending, once focussed almost exclusively on the Lunar New Year, but now stretching from the highly promoted Singles’ Day on November 11 through to the Lunar New Year, with Christmas giving it a boost in the middle.
Even before Advent begins, Hunwick says, “Shops, streets and hotels begin filling with slightly off-kilter Yuletide scenes: performers in elf suits play traditional cymbals, while a grinning, plastic Santa Claus toots a saxophone outside his gingerbread cabin.”
While the sax may be a mystery, it is believed to be associated with Bill Clinton jamming on the instrument back in the 1990s.
It also reflects the smooth alto-sax background music that is the preferred soundtrack of Santa’s most recognised dwelling, which is not his traditional gingerbread house, but the glittering, modern shopping mall.
There’s no sign of Jesus, but in the big cities the face of Father Christmas can be more prominent than the homely image of Uncle Xi Jinping, as state media has characterised the nation’s president in a familial way, which is quite at odds with the repressive manner in which he’s coldly eliminating opponents.
But Xi has indulged too, visiting Santa’s official cabin in Rovaniemi, Finland, in 2010.
Nevertheless, Christmas is trendy and among young Chinese it may well be the second most celebrated festival in China after the Spring Festival.
Research conducted by the China Social Survey Institute found that 15- to 45-year-olds are the most likely to observe it.
“The season’s popularity is an outgrowth of study-abroad programmes,” Hunwick quotes Sara Jane Ho, whose Institute Sarita specialises in educating wealthy Chinese on aspects of western culture such as how to properly pronounce Hermes—the brand, rather than the Greek deity (the h is silent, and the second e accented), as saying.
Hunwick quotes the Hurun Report as saying that 85 per cent of wealthy Chinese send their children to countries like the United States of America (US), the United Kingdom and Canada for higher education.
Around 275,000 Chinese students enroll annually at US universities, accounting for more than 30 per cent of all international students in the country. When the winter holidays send their American peers home to family and friends, Chinese students often turn to each other for companionship.
“Like returning missionaries, these sea turtles then bring their own version of Christmas back home,” he says.
Young people see Christmas as an excuse to party, whereas Chinese festivals are comparatively solemn, serious and spiritual.
Hunwick then quotes a 33-year-old sales executive in Guangzhou as saying, “Christmas is just an excuse to go shopping, as there are many big sales at a lot of places. The theme is to have fun.”
It is seen as a break from work and a survey lists relaxation after a busy year and experience of the New Year atmosphere among the top reasons cited for celebrating Christmas, along with being closer to friends and colleagues, and using the romantic atmosphere of Christmas to spread love.
Some take the second rationale quite seriously. “Have you heard of such a phrase in China, Silent Night, First Night!” Pastor Long Fei, an assistant at a House Church in Beijing, asked Hunwick.
“Many young people choose to give themselves to their beloved on this eve and eat the forbidden fruit,” the pastor told him.
The Christmas spirit has even reached as far as China’s sweaty south. Since 2009, a Santa Claus Post Office has operated in Guangzhou, offering specially stamped postcards, inked in Chinese calligraphy and sending Santas, laden with donated gifts, to children in remote parts of the country.
In sunny Sichuan, an official 13,000-square-metre replica of the Finnish Santa village that Xi visited, is currently under construction, curiously titled Floraland.
And Christmas is on a kind of infinite loop in places like Shenzhen, whose population swells by five million in the summer to feed the Christmas electronics boom, and Yiwu, the south-eastern city that famously produces 80 per cent of the world’s Christmas decorations.
In this real Santa’s workshop, the romantic notion of Christmas confronts a harsher truth: 12-hour days at around US$30 ($233) a day and 600 factories churning out thousands of baubles a day, as a migrant workforce, largely indifferent to their meaning, produces stuff ultimately headed for landfills or perhaps recycling back in one of Guangdong’s e-waste villages.
There are currently around 100 million Chinese Christians (the government claims it is 23 million), more than the Communist Party membership, but it is still surprising that Christmas, with its connotations of faith, foreignness and blithe consumerism, is so tolerated.
“I don’t think the Communist Party has a clear position about Christmas, except for not encouraging it,” Yang Fenggang, from Purdue University, said, adding, “Christmas is not considered a public holiday and people don’t get a day off.”
In 2006, a group of post-doctoral Confucian students published an open letter, entitled Walk Out of Cultural Collective Unconciousness and Strengthen Chinese Cultural Dominance, that expressed anxiety about western cultural hegemony and the encroachment of Christianity under the cover of Christmas celebrations.
Chinese who observe Christmas are “doing what western missionaries dreamed to do,” the letter claimed, urging a boycott of the celebration. It had little effect.
“Many Chinese have become so much in tune with globalisation that they don’t really care whether this is western or Chinese,” Yang observed, adding that retailers have shamelessly promoted Christmas.
The rapidly increasing number of Christians who are eager to spread the word often celebrate Christmas as an occasion to bring more people into Church gatherings,” Yang observes.
Wang Tuanjie, a Christian, also sees an opportunity. “Christians know December 25 is not Jesus Christ’s birthday, but we use it to let more people know him,” he said.
Hunwick says that most of the people he spoke with acknowledged that the true meaning of Christmas has been muddled into what the Pastor Long called a carnival.
Yet even for non-believers, Christmas represents a chance to explore something more substantive and spiritual than the usually permitted fare.
“Although they don’t know Jesus Christ or the origin of Christmas, many people come to the Church and join the carols and other worshiping events,” Zhang Jie, a Christian in Beijing, said.
On Christmas Eve, the state-approved Churches are expected to be packed tight, as thousands queue for midnight Mass or watch the services on outside monitors. Many will be first-timers, drawn by the crowds.
It is the rare time of year when China’s Churchgoers are most noticeable. Shopping malls hope their Christmas-themed cathedrals to Mammon will offer a similar draw.
In China, the state’s ruthless control over ideology and repeated purges of those who criticise it, have reinforced the impulse to act in their own self-interest rather than for society.
The ubiquitous Santa, a reassuring icon without the cultural baggage of Chinese traditions, has cheer lead this retreat into materialism. 
“I’ve always known him as an older man with lots of gifts,” Hunwick quotes one young woman as remarking. “What’s not to like?”
But still, around Beijing, Santa may need to keep a tight rein on his reindeer and keep a sharp ey one on his bag of goodies!

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