BEIJING—Christmas—once banned in China—has exploded in the atheist nation in recent years, with marketers using everything from saxophones and Smurfs to steam trains to get shoppers to open their wallets.
Anyone walking into a shopping mall is welcomed by an orgy of festive cheer: Shop windows are bedecked with plastic Christmas trees, garlands and baubles, while the strains of “Jingle Bells” fill the air.
On the streets, banners reading “Happy Christmas” adorn schools and hotels, while festive messages are splashed across adverts and the media. In many restaurants, staff wear ubiquitous Santa Claus hats topped with felt reindeer antlers.
Christmas is celebrated widely across Asia, particularly in commercial centers like Japan and Hong Kong, where it has become a major shopping holiday shorn of most religious trappings.
It has particularly gathered momentum in China since 2010, when then Vice President Xi Jinping—now the country’s head of state—popped into Father Christmas’s cabin during a visit to Finland.
“At shopping malls, Santa has become a promotional tool for pushing Christmas sales—and Chinese like to shop,” said Sara Jane Ho, founder of a finishing school popular among Beijing’s wealthy.
This year she noted the proliferation of young Father Christmases, his traditional beard and rounded belly replaced by a saxophone.
“Saxophone is seen as a very Western thing, and Santa Claus is seen as a very Western thing, so it’s almost natural they go together,” Ho said.
In fact, in China almost anything seen as Western is used to evoke Christmas: Teddy bears, the Seven Dwarves, fairground carousels or even steam trains.
Last year, a shopping mall in Shanxi province featured a giant Father Christmas, the edge of his jacket lifted as if caught by a gust of breeze in emulation of the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe.
This Christmas craze is mainly limited to young urbanites from the middle or upper classes.
“At my home in the country, people don’t celebrate Christmas. By contrast, their children who have moved to the city celebrate it: On Dec. 24, they meet with friends and go out to have fun,” said Guo Dengxiu, a migrant from eastern Anhui province.
Many Christmas “traditions” have been brought back by young Chinese who have studied abroad, Ho said, meaning the holiday often bears more resemblance to Valentine’s Day than the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
“In the West, you have a big meal with your family, just cooked at home, you exchange gifts, and afterwards you would attend a Church service,” Guo said.
“In China, you have a big meal at a restaurant, with friends or with your romantic significant other—so it’s a romantic date—and it would be followed by going to the cinema, karaoke, clubbing or a costume party,” she added.
The commercial importance of Christmas in China is typified in the eastern city of Yiwu, which supplies some 60 percent of the world’s decorations, where a dip in international orders has been filled by domestic demand.
But Chinese traditional holidays, such as Lunar New Year celebrations, remain more important occasions for families to get together, said Benoit Vermander, a professor from Fudan University in Shanghai.
According to him, China’s love of Christmas is “a close mixture between attraction to ‘globalized’ Western customs and a fascination with religion, which is clearly shown by the popularity of Christianity in the big cities of the East.”
“China celebrates both Christmas and the Western New Year and, a few weeks later, the Chinese New Year. In this way, it has two cultural identities: One reflecting its ancestral culture and the other reflecting globalized culture, borrowing from Christian tradition,” Vermander said.
The rise of Christmas has also been driven by the swelling ranks of Christians in the world’s most populous country.
The last official figures, from 2010, estimate there are 23 million Protestants and 5.7 million Catholics in China, but some say Christians may number several times more than that.
China’s communist authorities exercise strict control over religion and only allow Christians to join government-sanctioned churches.
This has prompted the proliferation of underground congregations—particularly Protestant ones—whose followers often complain of religious persecution.
But some in China see the rise of Christmas as stemming more from the weakening of traditional values.
The “Christmas frenzy” represents a “shipwreck” of the Chinese culture, according to a paper written by a group of 10 Chinese PhD students, published by the Taiwan-based Institut Ricci this month.
“After more than 100 years during which the Chinese have subverted the course of their own history, violently condemned their own culture and denounced their own traditions, Chinese culture, especially Confucianism, has officially disappeared and completely sunk.”