Christmas comes to China

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Christmas is coming, and Santa's trappings are cropping up around the country. Similar decorations are going up across China, but in a very different environment. The holiday has become an increasingly visible holiday on the Chinese calendar-the retail calendar, that is. Yuletide in China is purely a consumer experience, and a popular one at that.

It's new for the Chinese and catching on rapidly. Most people don't know a great deal about the origins or significance of Christmas. Religious iconography is not present, Santa Claus is assumed to be American and the holiday is commonly referred to as the "Western New Year." Older people and the rural population rarely note its passing at all. Yet in developed cities, Christmas has become a day for shopping and eating with friends. Malls decorate a week or two in advance and offer all sorts of discounts and gift-with-purchase promotions. English-language Christmas tunes blast from mall sound systems and from the propaganda boxes carefully placed around public areas.

Part of the appeal of Christmas is its status as a nonfamily holiday. Chinese New Year, the highlight of the calendar, is a time for reunion and for celebrating traditional values. Endless nostalgia-tinged advertisements of happy multigenerational families crowd the TV, and the country shuts down for a week in February. It is a peak time for shopping, predictably, but consumerism takes a back seat to the values and traditions of the festival.

Chen Hao, a 27-year-old in Beijing, explained it to me: "Chinese New Year is really a time for family. I do enjoy it and respect my parents. But Christmas is when I can really have fun with my friends and enjoy." His sentiments are common, as the booked karaoke bars and crowded restaurants of December suggest.

Christmas is not alone, however. In some cities, such as Guangzhou, Halloween is gaining popularity, especially in the bars and nightclubs. Even Oktoberfest has become quite popular for hip Shanghainese, lucky to live in a city with a boisterous German community. The optimistic open-mindedness of this country extends even to the calendar. Let the marketing begin.

P.T. Black ... is a partner at Jigsaw International, a Shanghai lifestyle-research agency that looks at change in China.
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