Christmas craze fills Chinese malls, if not its churches

Christmas commerce – and karaoke – are proving highly popular in China.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Qu Yi and her son Dabao admire a Christmas installation outside a mall in downtown Beijing. Christmas in China has no religious connotations, but is increasingly celebrated with shopping sprees.

And you thought Christmas was over-commercialized where you live.

There may be around 70 million Christians in China, but they are emphatically not the reason why you cannot walk down a street in Beijing at the moment without bumping into a Christmas tree, or having “Jingle Bells” blared at you from a storefront.

In a country where consumerism is an all-embracing craze, Christmas is “a celebration for young people seeking to be fashionable and retailers seeking to be profitable,” says Xia Xueluan, a professor of Sociology at Peking University. “Christmas in China is not celebrated at home or in church, but in the mall.”

Christmas has nothing to do with Chinese culture, and all the seasonal symbols – the tinsel-and-baubled Christmas trees outside shopping centers, the glitter-strewn reindeer and artificial snowdrifts in store windows, the jovial white-bearded Santa Claus cutouts everywhere – are all borrowed lock, stock, and barrel from the west.

China, of course, churns out almost all the world’s Christmas decorations. But fewer and fewer of them ever make it to a store near you. A recent Chinese customs agency report estimated that 30 percent of the Christmas products manufactured in China are sold in China.

And hanging them out on your shop-front works. December sales at big malls and supermarkets jump to 15 to 30 percent above normal levels, says Wang Xianqing, a sales expert at the University of Business Studies in Guangdong.

In fashion

Qu Yi is one of the reasons why. A high school art teacher, she took her five-year-old son on a shopping spree at an upscale mall one afternoon this week, in search of gifts for her family and friends.

Ms. Qu has celebrated Christmas for the last few years, she says “because it’s a fashion and it happens all over the world.” This year she plans to go with her husband and friends to a restaurant and then a karaoke bar on Christmas Eve – a habit that millions of other young Chinese urbanites share.

Christmas, with the presents that people exchange, is “a good opportunity to improve relationships with my relatives and friends,” she explains.

That reason to celebrate Christmas, even as an unbeliever, might just pass muster with Guo Maliya, an old Christian lady (with an old Christian name – Maliya is the local version of Maria) who spends her time knitting in the warmth of the gift shop attached to St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in the heart of Beijing.

Most young people, she sniffs, “just use Christmas as an opportunity to go crazy. All the karaoke bars are jam packed on the 24th.”

Her friend Huang Delesha, who minds the shop that sells Bibles and rosaries, along with plaster statues of Catholic saints and other religious knick-knacks, is a little more positive. She voices the pious hope that “since people have started to celebrate Christmas, it’s a good chance for them to learn what it means.”

Perhaps. But even if that does not come to pass, the consumer frenzy surrounding Christmas in China benefits St. Joseph’s shop, too. With thousands of faithful flocking to festive celebrations of Mass, says Ms. Huang, “December 24th and 25th are our best two days of business in the whole year.”

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