I’m not sure we really knew what to expect about celebrating Christmas in China. We thought it would be interesting to spend the holidays here and see how it was celebrated. It was the first time any of us had been outside the US for Christmas. Well, it was an interesting experience, but more for the lack of celebrating than for the way it’s celebrated differently.
People we talked to before Thanksgiving said Christmas wasn’t much in China, that there really weren’t things to see and do. However, right around Thanksgiving, we started to see Christmas decorations going up all around. We were surprised and thought perhaps Christmas would be a more important holiday. The malls had large trees and decorations. Our apartment complex put colored lights in the trees and had a “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” sign in colored lights. Hotels and office buildings had decorations around their entrances. In stores and restaurants, the staff often had Santa hats and/or Christmas apparel on. And nearly everywhere we went, we heard Christmas music in English, both secular and religious songs.
A few things were noticeably absent from the myriad of Christmas decorating. Christmas merchandise for sale in the stores was very limited. There were few ornaments or other decorations to purchase, but no Christmas wrapping paper. The wrapping paper we found was more general paper than Christmas. We saw very few nativities either as decorations or for sale in stores. The chocolate companies had Christmas-oriented boxes of chocolate, but we didn’t see the expanded baking ingredients or food for Christmas dinner. We did see a wide selection of Christmas dinners offered at restaurants all over Shanghai, but they were extremely expensive- $100-150 per person. We did not see large lots of fresh Christmas trees for sale. Private homes and apartments were not adorned with holiday decorations. And there was no Santa Claus to visit in the malls.
The girls and I found a small artificial tree for our apartment. It’s only about 3 or 4 feet tall and pretty spindly. To Jenna’s dismay, Laura and I called it a “Charlie Brown tree without the lean.” It had lights and a few decorations. The girls had to talk me into buying the tree, but I was glad we did
Our church with another International Christian church hosted a Christmas Eve service on Saturday evening. It was typical of Christmas services in the US with Christmas carols and Bible readings. One unique thing, we sat with families from Germany and England who were also living in Shanghai.
At David’s office and throughout China, Christmas is not a holiday. There were no days off. Guys in his office asked him if we really gave gifts in socks. He said yes, but they were called “stockings.” He asked if the Chinese exchanged gifts or did anything special. But, they said no, that all the decorations and things we see for Christmas are for the westerners who are here, not for the Chinese.
The girls and I baked several kinds of cookies and gave to Laura’s tutors, to our mandarin teacher and to the ladies who clean our apartment. Laura’s tutors are American and French, so the gifts made sense to them. Our mandarin teacher is Chinese and also a Christian, so Christmas means something to her. The cleaning ladies, we don’t know what they thought. They do not speak English, but said thank you in Chinese several times.
Looking back, it was interesting to spend Christmas in China although it did not “feel” particularly Christmasy or festive. The English family we sat with at our Christmas Eve service agreed that it did not feel like Christmas despite all the decorations and the music. The girls and I didn’t hear “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” very often. And almost no one asked what our plans were for the holidays. On Christmas morning, the activity outside our apartment looked just like any other day.
The experience has left me to wonder if the Christmas feeling comes as much or more from the interaction with people around us as it does from the decorations we see. I missed our large, live tree this year and our excursions around Noblesville and Indianapolis to see the lights and decorations. But even more, I missed Christmas feeling and the people and knowing that all our individual busyness was oriented toward the same day and similar celebrations.