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December 2005

This e-mail aims to answer all your burning curiosities about how Christmas is manifesting itself over here in Dalian, combined with some other random vignettes about how cold I am.

 I wake up in the morning and I put on my bathrobe before going to the kitchen where we have a digital thermometer.  It says it is 21 degrees Fahrenheit outside and 51 inside (the abominable indoor temperature can be blamed on communist heating).  I go back to the bedroom, which is at least warmer than the kitchen, and start putting on my four pounds of clothes.  I’m only going to work, but I must dress like I’m going on the Iditarod.  I first put on my thick long underwear, which is like a wool sweater for my legs, then my jeans, then my thick socks.  On my torso I stack no less than 6 layers of shirts and sweaters.  People who meet me for the first time during the winter could not be blamed for thinking I was a bit on the chubby side.  To go outside for my 15-minute walk to work, I add my winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, which is far more than any of the locals are wearing.  Only my eyes are exposed to the bitter 4-degree wind chill.

 I get to school, (eyes watering, nose dripping, lips covered in wool hairs from my scarf), and there is a Christmas tree and a scary plastic life-size Santa in the lobby, and suddenly it all makes sense.  Of course I’m freezing to death—it’s almost Christmas!  I’ve been conditioned by countless movies and years of experience to associate cold weather with the warmth of Christmas, and so it only seems natural that this suffering is some necessary precursor to the holiday season.  To help you understand why I appreciate this (because I’m generally not a fan of Christmas or freezing to death), let me recap my last three Christmases:

 2002: Zac and I are in a little village called Omege, in Namibia.  It’s about 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside.  We wake up Christmas morning to find our host family already out weeding the mahangu fields like normal.

 2003:  I am on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic.  I am full of painkillers, my arm is in a sling and I’m sitting next to a Jewish man who keeps giving me all of his food because it’s not Kosher.

 2004: We are in Kentucky at Zac’s grandparents house.  We’re on a tri-state whirlwind tour to visit all of our primary relatives.  6 days ago we were in South Africa, two weeks ago we left our home at Ekulo.  We are still blinking our eyes and waking up to our old life, to the realization that Namibia is over.

 And now: 2005.  We finally have the proper approach to Christmas.  It’s cold.  It’s snowy.  It’s dark by 4:30 pm.  The entrance to the shopping center we frequent most often is filled with Christmas decorations and is playing Christmas music.  We’ve received two Christmas cards.  We even bought some Christmas lights to put up in our house (although half the strand doesn’t light up anymore).  The only things missing are candy canes.

 So, after spending the past three pre-Christmases in the southern hemisphere, I fully appreciate how much being cold adds an air of authenticity to the Christmas season.  Any air of authenticity is greatly needed here in China, where piracy, copyright infringement, fakes, and plagiarism are all quite normal and commonplace.  How refreshing it is, then, to notice that here Christmas is a pure, unadulterated celebration of western commercialism. 

 Less than 4% of the Chinese population is Christian, so the holiday is only vaguely associated with the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus.  However, through associations with the outside world, associations which are mostly economic, the marketability of Christmas is dashing across China faster than Rudolph.  Christmas advertising is quite evident in Dalian, probably because it is one of China’s “special economic zones” and therefore it attracts a lot of foreign business.  Dalian has a lot of Japanese, Koreans and Russians in addition to all of us English teachers from the west, and no doubt this has increased the presence of Christmas promotions.  So Christmas here is all about Christmas trees, lights, and Santa Claus, and it seems to be celebrated primarily by department stores, hotels, and some restaurants like Pizza Hut and McDonalds.

 Actually, Christmas is not even recognized as an official holiday in China.  It is becoming popular in this primarily atheist society simply because it is another holiday, and who can turn down a holiday?  The Irish brought us St. Patricks Day and the influx of Mexicans brought Cinco De Mayo.  You may have some vague idea about the origins of those holidays in the same way the Chinese have some vague notions about the relationship between Christmas and Christianity.  People are generally willing to adopt any holiday that comes along as a pleasant excuse to escape the monotony of daily life without much consideration about the origins of the holiday. 

 Except the puritans of course. The puritans who first settled in America were opposed to Christmas because the Bible didn’t say anything about December 25th but the Roman festival to Saturnalia did.  In the ancient calendar, December 25th was the winter solstice, and the rituals of Saturnalia, such as gift giving, were incorporated into the celebration of Christmas in the 4th century, AD. The puritans boycotted Christmas because they felt it was at heart a pagan ritual, albeit disguised as a Christian one.

 So maybe, from a puritan point of view, it isn’t surprising that in China, where the government is profoundly atheist (to be a member of the Communist Party, you must renounce all religion), and the vast majority of the population is not Christian, there is no opposition to the word “Christmas” being plastered everywhere.  There are a few quirks in their adoption of the holiday though. Apparently they haven’t quite got the hang of the western calendar yet because all the signs say “Merry Christmas 2006.”  A giant billboard outside of the department store across from our school says “X’mas Festizal.”  Christmas festizal?  What on earth is Christmas festizal?  But there you have it—a perfect representation of China’s rapid and sometimes careless development under western influence (the typo) and a blending of cultures: at the end of January is the Chinese New Year, called “Spring Festival”. This is preceded by Christmas Festival in December.  Of course.

 So how is the “Christmas festizal” actually celebrated here?  Well, I’m not sure exactly, but I’ll find out and tell you all about it in the next installment of “Christmas in China.”

 Stay warm everyone, because I’m freezing over here.

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