Imagine Christmas. Family, roast turkey, mulled wine, open fires, Jesus (if you’re into that kind of thing), the smell of pine needles, mince pies, increasingly incomprehensible Doctor Who specials, pigs in blankets, long walks, Del-boy, parents going to extraordinary lengths to maintain their childrens’ belief in Father Christmas (including my father nibbling carrots into anatomically correct reindeer bite marks – it’s the only explanation), and even a few presents if you’re lucky. Crackers resound with a sharp crack as nail clippers and mini chess sets fly into the gravy and, as you gently coax a flimsy paper hat onto your head, a joke about a nosey pepper (they always get jal-ap-een-yo business, especially at Christmas) receives the obligatory chuckle/groan.
Sadly, in every pack of crackers, there is one that’s just a bit of a damp squib. It doesn’t so much crack apart as gradually un-coalesce in a gurgle of disappointment. The contents are slightly damp, the crown just won’t fit, somehow tearing itself to mush, the joke falls flat, and you’re even robbed of the functional nail clippers. This is a cracker made in China. This is Christmas, made in China.
Christmas, much like a soggy party hat, just doesn’t fit China. That doesn’t stop them trying, however. If there are moans in the UK about how materialistic Christmas has become, then China takes that materialism to a whole new level. Their are sales on everything from clothes, to beds, to dogs (both to love and to eat), and they offer astronomical discounts – discounts which begin on Christmas Eve. The intensity of some shoppers borders insanity. Yesterday was International Women’s Day so Hypermart decided to give a massive discount off all tampons. It was madness. The shelves were stripped bare, an undercurrent of aggression ran through the whole store (I resisted the urge to make a ‘that time of the month’ joke), and one women was even forced to put some back because she had bought too many. Christmas was much the same, but with the shopping madness not limited solely to tampons.
The Christmas trees that appeared were finally taken down two weeks ago which, in a country so obsessed with luck, seems a little strange. They were also bedecked with banners proclaiming ‘Happy 2014′ in what is a widespread misunderstanding and amalgamation of the Gregorian New Year and Christmas. I received lots of messages at midnight on December 24th from my students wishing me a Happy New Year, a nice but ultimately misguided attempt to generate some Christmas spirit. They also gave me apples, lots of apples, I ended up with over 50. The word for apple in Mandarin sounds like peace, so to give an apple to somebody in China at Christmas is to propagate peace. Not a bad tradition at all, but hardly a Christmas tradition.
The main problem is a lack of understanding about what Christmas is about. Whether that means family or religion, in China little of either seems evident at Christmas. China is, of course, not a Christian country. There is a state sponsored Christian church, but Buddhism and Taoism far outweigh any other religion in the country. As a consequence there seems to be very little knowledge of the origins of Christmas as a Christian festival, or the corresponding importance of family at this time.
I taught two classes on Christmas Day, which was a little strange. The other foreign teachers and I were able to secure a chicken for a makeshift Christmas dinner, but I could’t help but think back to 365 days before… excitedly opening my stocking at 7AM and then stuffing my face for the next 16 hours! Much like a cracker made in China, Christmas made in China left me feeling disappointed, a little frustrated, but ultimately not that surprised.
Here’s hoping Christmas 2014 will be all the sweeter for the experience!