A Shanghai department store dispensed with the usual Christmas tidings of peace and joy last year and got straight to the pro-shopping message, "Happy Bling Bling Holidays," its neon signs proclaimed. This Christmas, the Jiu Guang store turned its façade into a giant ad for a glassware brand, Schott Zwiesel, with 3-story-tall champagne glasses clinking together in a holiday toast. The Christmas tree out front is sponsored by the Swiss watch brand Longines.
Christmas is even more blatantly commercial in China than elsewhere, partly because it's an import that wasn't popular until the 1990s. Though China's Christian population is growing, for most people Christmas is devoid of any religious sentiment or family traditions. It's a holiday for the young, something they might celebrate by going out with friends or on a romantic dinner out. Or by shopping.
Lunar New Year, which falls this Feb. 19, is the big annual holiday here, and many malls will leave their holiday lights up for that, at some point replacing the pine trees with Year of the Sheep décor. Lunar New Year is the big family event in China, the one people are nostalgic about, the one with lasting traditions.
People in China generally don't have so many Christmas memories, so foreign brands are filling in the blanks. Here's how.
Ying Mu, corporate branding manager for Shanghai-based Labbrand, notes a trend for "branded Christmas trees in front of shopping malls." What exactly does that mean? In Shanghai, in front of the ritzy Plaza 66 shopping center, there's a giant Christmas tree made up of Fendi bags, with a glowing brand logo at the base. On a recent evening at dusk, shoppers paused to take selfies in front of it.
Inventing Christmas nostalgia
Starbucks, with its red holiday cups and whipped cream-topped holiday drinks, has been a big Christmas booster in China. The chain launched here in 1999, and now it has more than 1,400 coffeehouses in 84 cities.
Since Starbucks is an aspirational brand in China and people are eager to publicize their visits there, photos of Starbucks cups often pop up on social-media feeds. On the ubiquitous chat app WeChat, the brand gathered some of the photos up in a nostalgic, flowery post about memories involving Toffee Nut Latte, a seasonal drink "that has witnessed countless sweet moments." Many shots show hands holding Starbucks red holiday cups; some use gauzy, retro, Instagram-like filters.
After all, if people have no memory of munching on Christmas cookies as a toddler, their first taste of the holiday might very well be at age 20, in the form of a hot, foamy drink from Starbucks.
WeChat Christmas cards
Several brands encourage people to send out holiday greeting cards over Chinese social media networks, including chocolate brands Ferrero Rocher and Godiva, as well as Tiffany & Co., the jeweler.
A WeChat app from Tiffany offered retro, New York-themed cards (Times Square, 5th Avenue, etc.). The card appears on the recipient's screen, and then the scene shoot to the night sky, with virtual fireworks, the recipients' name in skywriting and a personal holiday greeting.
New traditions -- like apples as gifts
Some Christmas traditions make it over to China; some don't. Mall Santas aren't a thing here. On the other hand, there was just a contest in the city of Changsha to see how many people in Santa suits could squeeze into a car. (Answer: 19.)
So China is already creating its own Christmas fun. Another recent Chinese take on the holiday is gifting apples on Christmas Eve. In Mandarin, the word for "apple" sounds vaguely similar to "Christmas Eve," which explains the phenomenon. Yihaodian, the Chinese online grocer that's majority-owned by Walmart, offers Fuji apples sold in mini, individual "Merry Christmas" boxes.
Fruit Hunter, a vendor on WeChat, sells apples decorated with joyous, crying and love-struck faces inspired by emoticons for social media-inspired gifting.
Another excuse for online shopping
When e-commerce giant Alibaba created its annual Nov. 11 shopping festival, the world's biggest e-commerce holiday, it was conceived to spark sales at a dead time in the retail calendar. November and December weren't especially big shopping months in China, in contrast to the West.
A glance at Alibaba's shopping platforms suggests more brands are getting into the Christmas spirit. The black cat mascot for Tmall, Alibaba's online shopping mall, has donned a Santa hat, and there's a Christmas lottery for prizes. Some local brands joined in, sometimes with intriguing results (one Chinese brand of health-related products offered a holiday special on fur-lined anti-pollution face-masks.)
Other Tmall Christmas promotions seem be just another excuse to buy stuff online, since many of the sale products would make awkward gifts, like sanitary napkins and dandruff shampoo.