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Two months before the sacred day, the major cities in China are already explosive riots of all that Christmas has come to mean to the secular world.
Hallmark would be proud. My parents, on the other hand, are not so sure.
On a trip back to the mainland to visit them in early November, I’d casually conveyed my surprise at how the whole city seemed to be in the grip of Christmas fever. My mother rolled her eyes, sighed meaningfully, and snorted her derision at the whole gaudy show. “What has it got to do with us Chinese people?” she questioned.
My younger brother, on the other hand, thought it was a fabulous “festival” to celebrate, and definitely more fun than – dare he say it? – Chinese New Year! The rest of the younger half of the extended family was quick to agree with him. My college-age cousins all chimed in that Christmas and many other Western festivals, like Halloween and Valentine’s Day, for example, were much “cooler” than our traditional Chinese celebrations. From their point of view, the Western world really knows how to party.
And that, of course, set off a passionate and loud family debate
on the erosion of the Chinese culture by Western influence. It was a battle between the young and the old. Stuck in between these two generations, I listened and watched with fascination at the passions it ignited.
It got me thinking: Is modern China really embracing Christmas, even without understanding the true meaning of the holiday? The display of Christmas is loud, brash and pervasive in the major cities. Yet in all its exuberance, it’s clear that there is little relation to the actual origin of Christmas. Where is Jesus in the displays and all of the consumption?
But as I thought back to the spirited enthusiasm of my young cousins for the partying, the gifts and the drinking, I considered
the Christmas scenes of my own memories: of Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat, of Tim Allen as Father Christmas, the grumpy mall Santas – and I realised exactly where the innocence and faith had gone.
Christmas in mainland China is celebrated mainly by people under
40 years old. To people in this group, all trying to break free from what they see as a culture of duty, Western festivals are all about the pure celebration of the day: Valentine’s Day is about romantic love. Halloween is about dressing up, being silly and eating too much candy. Christmas is about exchanging cards and presents, and drinking and partying with friends. None involves any family obligation. But Chinese festivals, my young cousins argue, were all about family: from Chinese New Year to tomb-sweeping, it’s all about reuniting with family, respecting family, paying homage to family, dead or alive.
The young cousins were surprised when I explained that many of those Western holidays – Christmas, too – are, in fact, truly about being with family. Christmas, for example, is a Christian celebration, centred on God and family. But they would not be swayed, taking youthful comfort in the fact that in China, at least, Christmas is simply a fun excuse to exchange gifts and hang out with friends, with no familial obligations.
I was beginning to see my parents’ generation’s concern for such heathenism. But perhaps this isn’t so much an erosion of the local character, but a case of the grass always seeming greener on the other side.
When my Western friends in Hong Kong celebrate Chinese festivals, they, too, often skim off just what seem like the best bits. In September, they might buy “moon cakes” from Häagen-Dazs, foregoing any family dinners or other traditions. Chinese New Year will be summed up with a reworks display and a trip out of town. All of the other – deeper, more meaningful – aspects will likely be lost.
On seeing the scenes of transportation chaos in China leading up to Chinese New Year, my Western friends comment that it’s amazing to see how Chinese families will move heaven and earth and suffer all kinds of inconveniences to get home to celebrate with family. They forget that similar scenes happen in the airports across Europe and America over Christmas and Thanksgiving. My Chinese cousins don’t see those Western scenes either, so it fuels their hmisperception that family does not factor into Western celebrations.
I guess what occurs to me, straddling both the East and the West, is that both traditional and imported festivals are fine, as long as you know why you are celebrating. They’ll all seem a bit hollow if you think others are missing the best, most sacred parts. But, any occasion that brings families and friends together and builds traditions – even new traditions – seems worth celebrating to me.