Chinese Christmas

Stuart Beaton writes about Christmas and China and how people celebrate–and what exactly it is that they’re celebrating. (Check out Stuart’s podcasts at Without further adieu, here’s Stu:

China may be a “Country of Godless heathens”, but they seemed to have embraced the spirit of Christmas.

By that I don’t mean anything as crass as religious celebration. No, they’re getting right into the Consumerism Spirit.

Saturday afternoons in downtown Tianjin are usually mildly crowded, as people wander from place to place, gently looking for something to do.

Christmas Eve, however, saw huge crowds of frenzied shoppers incredibly accurately mimicking the scenes of last minute Christmas shopping usually associated with the U.S., England or Australia. It’s as if the population has had collectively thought, “Hey! Another Festival!”, and gone all out to take part in it.

Of course, local businesses are helping to whip them into a spending frenzy, with huge Christmas displays (almost as tacky, if not more so, as those in the West), miles of blinking lights, millions of shiny baubles, and dozens of trees.

Everywhere you look, the bearded face of Old Saint Nick is smiling down, and faux-Victoria cherubs surround paper cut outs of firs that Prince Albert would have wept to have seen.

Even the cashiers in small supermarkets are wearing Santa hats – albeit the last batch I saw were more trimmed with grey than white, but they had been wearing them for four straight weeks. I believe some of the hats were beginning to be able to be classed as life forms in their own right…

For the first time since I came to China, I saw staff making up Christmas Hampers for people to give as gifts. One of them contained a tall chocolate rabbit, left over from Easter, but I didn’t have the heart to point it out.


My students have also tried to get into the swing of things this year – during their oral exams, several asked me what I’d be doing “during the Christmas festival”, as if it was a couple of weeks long.

“Well, I might roast a chicken and vegetables, and I think that I have a tiny pudding in the cupboard”, was the standard reply, “my wife’ll have to work, and I’ve got exams to mark.”

“Won’t you go to Church?”

I haven’t set foot in a Church in over a decade, and I’m unlikely to go to one here. Some of my colleagues belong to some Evangelical sect, and spend a lot of their free time trying to recruit followers, as if it was some kind of points system towards Sainthood.

Around this time of year, they’re almost clawing over the top of each other to drag unsuspecting students into their apartments “for tea and a chat”, in an effort to raise their scores on some Heavenly tote. Selling one’s soul for a mince pie is placing a very low value on it.

When I asked some of my students if they really knew what Christmas was all about, only one of them had an answer.

“It’s Santa’s birthday, sir, and everyone gets a present because of it.”

Part of me died inside that day.


  1. says

    Oh dear, Stuart, you’re so hard on your Christian friends, as if you’re so positive about their motivations! ;) No, but I hope you had a happy Christmas and enjoyed that tiny pudding in the cupboard. The Easter Bunny in the basket made me laugh.

    Happy New Year to you!

  2. says

    I’m not taking it too hard, but I’m no longer sure where the Truth lies these days.

    The “Claus” part is a phonetic corruption – Saint Nicholas, said fast enough, eventually breaks down as San Ta Claw Se… Santa Claus. I was fairly sure that Saint Nicholas wasn’t an angel, but was the Bishop of Turkey.

    The whole thing got hijacked by Coca Cola in the early 20th Century anyway.

    And Saturnalia is a Roman celebration of the god Saturn. I guess Rome is east of everywhere, as all roads lead to it.

    Just as all roads lead from Tianjin.

    And with Christmas over for another year, it’s time to put the subject to rest.

  3. PA McBinkle says

    You should not take it too hard, sir…even Christ wasn’t born on Christmas. It does show that humans across the globe enjoy a reason for comfort and good cheer. Christ WAS in favor of rejoicing and good hospitality…he was the source of the best wine provided for a wedding feast! Isn’t it ironic that Saint Nicholas is also the a given for the most disobedient angel in heaven’s cluster?…I’m not sure where the Claus flew in from. So many ideas all wrap up in one season. It is only fair that the orient gets a shot at it too…the Saturnalia DID get a start in the east. Truth is a tricky subject.

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