Somewhere on the journey to becoming the world's biggest exporter of Christmas toys, China started importing yule for itself.
Christmas wreaths and lighted trees, white-foam snowmen and special dinners, as well as an ethos of "jingle-bell cool" are wafting in on the wings of global culture, bringing a holiday atmosphere to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
At a Beijing noodle shop bedecked with silver and gold plastic bells, cook Yin Li pauses over a beef stew when asked if all the decorations seem like a foreign cultural invasion. "Honestly, no," she says. "I like it. It makes everything feel more like a holiday."
Throughout Asia, in fact, Western holidays have become chic, both for their commercial potential and because new generations think the act of decorating and celebrating is fun and different. Not only Christmas, but Valentine's Day, Father's Day and Mother's Day, Thanksgiving and Halloween, are finding a Pacific niche - where five years ago there was none.
"There's an appropriation and modification of Western holidays, with a commercial twist, in Asia," says Mark Mullins, a professor of religion and Japanese society at Sophia University in Tokyo. "Each year it increases ... whether or not people are interested in faith."
Five Santas from Sweden arrived in Beijing earlier this month. Bakeries sell "Christmas cakes," a Japanese innovation on the holiday. It is now fashionable for couples to visit the government-sanctioned cathedral in Beijing on Christmas Eve. On Dec. 1, a performance of Handel's "Messiah" was permitted for the first time in the Forbidden City Music Hall; the conductor was an expatriate, but the alto and tenor roles were sung by mainland Chinese.
"Only a few years ago, you'd never have seen this, but I think people like [the new Christmas look], and now it won't stop," says a Chinese scholar.
Christmas candlelight services and music are also gaining momentum in Tokyo. At Meiji Gakuin University last week, a candlelight chorale at the chapel "was packed out," says Dr. Mullins. "In Japan, 300 people is a crowd, especially for a Christian event attended by mostly non-Christians. You see this more and more."
The hugely popular Japanese Christmas cake is a new holiday dessert. But the small white cake tied with a red ribbon, and sold in December, is not a Western borrowing. If anything, the cake borrows from the August Chinese moon cake tradition.
An even greater surprise may be the success of Santa Claus in Vietnam. Last year in this Buddhist country, stores recorded a huge spike upward in the sales of artificial Christmas trees, and other holiday paraphernalia, according to the official Vietnam news service.
Among the educated in majority Hindu India, the outward trappings of Dec. 25 have been discovered, with prominent buildings in Delhi sporting lighted trees - as well as businesses and homes.
The Philippines and South Korea, of course, with histories of US presence and large evangelical subcultures, have a major head start. Parts of downtown Seoul look like a yuletide photo set piece for holiday catalogues. Some Christmas-tree shapes are built atop Buddhist pagodas and stand several stories high. Underneath, recorded carols ring out, including black gospel choirs shouting "Glory! glory!" as shoppers with gift-wrapped parcels pass by.
Of course, the globalized grafting of pleasing, colorful images, and the lure of time off with presents hardly counts for an awareness of the historical meaning of what religious scholars refer to as "the Christ event." In China, Christmas is translated as "holy birth." But few humble mangers are found amid the tinsel. Some Chinese evangelical ministers and Catholic priests remain behind bars, some with heavy sentences - for promoting their interpretation of the Gospels.
Still, as the amalgamated holiday gains currency, literally, it is becoming a kind of momentary pause in the Asian urban flow. In Korea it is a day off, with presents and cards exchanged even among nonChristians. In China, it is emerging as a time for family and friends to gather. In a recent six-city study of holidays in China, only 15 percent of respondents felt foreign holidays were as important as Chinese days. But the perception of the content of foreign holidays among Chinese is of note: 57 percent of men said that while Chinese holidays stress food or new clothes, foreign days stress "spiritual communication." Among women, 60 percent said they find more "relaxation" in foreign observances.
The second-biggest Western import holiday is probably Valentine's Day. Paper hearts, love letters, and chocolates are all the rage in Asia. In Japan there are separate men's and women's Valentine's days. But the exchange of cards and gifts is still often a cosmopolitan affair that gets frowned on in rural areas. In India's heartland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for example, the idea of young males and females going over the heads of parents to express fondness for one another has caused the trashing of shops that sell the offending cards and chocolates.
Father's and Mother's Day are holidays that have taken off because they reinforce local Asian traditions of honoring elders.
Thanksgiving is still getting started. Urban Chinese know about the holiday, but it's often associated with superstitions about "gods of the kitchen." Still, the Chinese try to accommodate it. A US executive says he found himself in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, two years ago on Thanksgiving. He asked a local official about getting turkeys for his American management team. The official searched the stores but came up empty. But he told the expats not despair. Sure enough, two golden brown gobblers were on the Thanksgiving table, overseen by a beaming official. Later, through other channels, the executive found out the local zoo was missing two turkeys.