This is part two of a three part series, "Christmas Crowds in China." Editor
As I walked through the center of town on Christmas Eve, I was forced every few steps to maneuver around yet another vendor trying to sell me something. In years past the pushcarts had been covered with Santa hats and light-up electronic wands. This year, however, it was all about apples—enormous apples branded with fortuitous (or sexy) images and packaged in Christmas-y cardboard boxes.
Most Chinese youngsters’ first encounter with Christmas was filtered through the perspective of their foreign English teachers. Over the past ten years, however, “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” have been replaced by a more Chinese understanding of the holiday. While many young people still associate Christmas with the church in some vague way, increasingly the candles and warmth and even mystery of Christmas Eve have all taken a decidedly romantic term.
Christmas Eve in China is known as Silent Night (ping’an ye 平安夜, from the first line of the song), and the first character in that song sounds identical to the first character in the compound that translates as apple (pingguo苹果). But beyond the wordplay, there is the romantic gesture—now a highly desirable one—of young men giving apples to their girlfriends on Christmas Eve. Of course, the evening involves lots of shopping—online and in the stores—as well as eating and probably a little partying at the cinema or maybe a karaoke club. I have even heard of young people discussing Christmas Eve as a particularly romantic occasion to lose one’s virginity. So much for Silent Night!
In those piles of boxed apples I see a truly Chinese appropriation of Christmas that has little if anything to do with the idealized Norman Rockwell/Thomas Kinkade Christmases of America, let alone the peaceful majesty of England’s wassail and “Carols from Kings.” And yet this, again, should not surprise any outsider who has been observing Chinese culture as of late. Chinese popular culture is increasingly confident, choosing to appropriate and reinvent rather than merely mimic trends and memes from outside—and even Christmas is now open to reinvention.
This confidence is also evident within the church, as Chinese Christians are more and more charting their own course. Experiments with Christian schooling and Christian matchmaking, as well as a growing interest in writing church constitutions are just a few of the areas where the Chinese church is exploring new forms of religious expression that are distinctly Chinese. Christmas is no exception: while retaining the centrality of the baby in the manger, Chinese churches have also responded in their own way to the unique evangelistic opportunity which the holiday presents. Across the country churches annually host a series of what can only be described as Christmas variety shows, employing singing, dancing, and skits to grab the attention of young holiday partiers. Far from an instance of “secularism” invading the church, these activities are culturally appropriate expressions of the “hot and noisy” [热闹] that is considered a key aspect of all Chinese holiday celebrations, as well as functioning as the baited hook that precedes the aggressively evangelistic Christmas “sermons” that are expected to reel in new believers. And in yet another departure from western ideas about Christmas, these Christmas messages invariably say far more about sin and the cross than would be common in a western church at Christmas.
Walking past the piles of apples glowing in the light of the church Christmas program projected outside of the church for all to see, I was forced to recognize that I was witnessing an explicitly Chinese Christmas, and that my experience or understanding of the holiday was not normative in this context. My initial frustration at Christmas being reduced to romantic apples soon gave way to eager anticipation as I wondered what other innovations we will see in the Chinese church as our brothers and sisters increasingly take ownership of all aspects of their faith.