Christmas in Shanghai

In China, Christmas Day is a regular business day and for most Chinese a non-event. Since December 25, 2011, fell on a Sunday, we were not working. On Christmas Eve we each had a two-hour Chinese lesson during the day, and then joined an American family in their home for Christmas Eve dinner. On Christmas Day we cooked thin strips of mutton and various vegetables in a charcoal-fired hot pot at a Chinese restaurant.

Shanghai has long been one of China’s most international cities, so Christmas seems more prominent than in other parts of China. (Last year in Kunming, only the most upscale malls and tourist spots decorated for Christmas.) Upwardly mobile Shanghai residents and businesses selectively adopt outward aspects of Western culture to project a worldly, with-it impression.

Decorating for the Christmas season is an example of this practice. Places of business – restaurants, malls, supermarkets and even our local gym – are decorated with Christmas trees covered with blue lights, poinsettias, and Santa Claus. English-language Christmas carols and popular Christmas songs play in supermarkets and restaurants.

For a few weeks before Christmas, gaudy decorations were widely available for purchase. On the Friday before Christmas as Marcia walked past the 3-story daycare/preschool/kindergarten adjacent to our apartment complex, the recorded strains of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” drifted out of an open window. Rounding the corner, she heard children’s voices singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.

Urbane Shanghai residents, many of whom studied and lived in the West, associate the Western Christmas season with festivity, generosity and family togetherness. It marks the start of China’s major holiday season that culminates in the seven-day Spring Festival and Lunar New Year’s Day (known in the West as Chinese New Year’s). The whole period blends together into a season of celebration and gift-giving.

During the week before Christmas, red and gold Spring Festival decorations appeared for sale alongside the Christmas decorations. Will the Christmas decorations in people’s homes come down when the Spring Festival decorations go up? Or will both types live side-by-side, as they have in our rented flat? The front door has a Chinese New Year decoration on the outside and a Christmas wreath on the inside. Both decorations are displayed year-round.

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