China succumbs to the glitz of Christmas

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Christmas tree. Photo: Yumo Chen
Image caption,
Decorated trees and street lights have brought excitement to the residents of China's cities

"Children are celebrating Christmas. As parents we have to buy gifts for them so they won't feel neglected."

So says Qian Liu, who is buying Holy Apples for her son from a street stall in Beijing.

Only an estimated 2% of China's population are practising Christians so, for people such as Ms Liu, there are no religious reasons whatsoever for celebrating Christmas.

Yet in recent years, there has been an increased focus on Christmas in China, particularly among young people who regard it as an important and fashionable day to celebrate.

"We simply just want to have some fun on this day," explains Sai Wang, who works for an IT company in Beijing.

"Western holidays are more trendy for young people. There is no other sophisticated reason at all," he adds.

Growth by stealth

So what has driven Chinese people to pursue this Western tradition?

"China mainland's acceptance of Christmas was passed from Hong Kong," explains professor Kent Deng from the London School of Economics.

Because of historical reasons, Christmas is an official holiday in Hong Kong.

"After the Reform and Opening Up policy in 1978, mainland China has gradually begun to accept Western culture," Dr Deng says.

"Before that, Christmas in China was purely an academic term. The Cultural Revolution shielded Chinese people from any Western religious values."

Religion has been a strange and distant thing to the Chinese people, with many believing it is something mystical, or even evil.

Most Chinese who celebrate Christmas were born after 1980 and have no religious beliefs. Most have never read a Bible and many know nothing about what Christmas means to Christians.

Christmas Day is not legally a national holiday, but it is celebrated as much as any of the traditional Chinese festivals.

Shopping malls, restaurants and bars are decorated, Father Christmas figures are at the doors to solicit business and groups of Chinese people gather to celebrate.

They send gifts to each other, drink alcohol and say Merry Christmas in English - with many having no idea of why.

Image caption,
Promotional offers attract customers during what has become an important day for the retail industry

Boosting business

"China has become the factory of the world and most Christmas gifts are made in China," says Dr Deng.

"Christmas gifts being offered in the domestic market boosts consumer demand. Meanwhile, China has gradually joined the global community and become more globalised," he says.

Once you factor in China's high-speed economic growth and how young people are starting to accept Western values and see them as fashionable, it is not surprising that Christmas is celebrated on such a big scale in China.

Throughout the Christmas period, almost all the shopping malls in China have large-scale promotion activities and Taobao, China's largest online shopping website, has a Christmas promotional theme on its home page.

Some Christmas gifts have been specifically targeted to Chinese consumers.

Image caption,
It is predominantly the youth who look upon Christmas as a trendy Western celebration

Apples for example, are sent as symbolic gifts. Known as Holy Apples, they cost five times more than usual and are packed as gifts to wish people a happy Christmas Eve.

Much as it has in the West, these celebrations have veered far from the original meaning of Christmas.

In China and the West alike, many people celebrate Christmas as a social event - with drink and food and a party.

In contrast, many are concerned that the atmosphere at traditional Chinese festivals has gradually becoming diluted.

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