Economy

Celebrating Christmas in Asia: A Closer Look

Christmastime can be confusing and complicated in the United States. Dads and moms across the land to compete with neighbors for the best light displays and house decorations. Radio stations play carols and seasonal songs on a 24/7 loop.

Mega-brands unleash their commercial assault of festive polar bears, cheeky chocolate peanuts, existentialist perfume dramas, and of course, the big man himself, on TV ads, movie theaters, and social media. Malls and retailers regurgitate every tired Christmas trope imaginable: borderline Santas in grottos, reluctant teenagers in elf outfits, and enough holiday music to drive retail clerks to silent despair.

That said, there is no denying how much many of us still need these customs; the familiarity and sense of complicity are a comfort to people everywhere. Unfortunately, many communities across America will feel the pinch this year.

However, one could argue, these distractions are more crucial than ever.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Christmas, due to its commercial appeal, has grown in scale from more humble origins. In the years before the holiday became centered around a spending extravaganza (which started around the close of World War II), the season was more about being with family, the spirit of giving, and maybe an excuse to put on a little weight.

But these days, retail is the largest obsession, forcing parents into unaffordable purchases and sending retail executives into delirium. Christmas shopping in the States topped $840 billion last year.

With the current fiscal climate — high inflation rates, the subsequent rise in production, marketing, and shipping – and shipping delays – has experts predicting a lower rate of holiday retail growth in 2022. Black Friday online sales did go up from their 2021 level, but not as drastically as spending did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

You may not be aware, but Christmas festivities are not restricted to western nations and capitalist economies. Christmas in parts of Asia is becoming more popular than ever.

Exporting Joy

Christmas is always celebrated across the Christian world, where children of all nationalities prepare trees, put up decorations, and live through the same levels of excitement. However, Christmas has also grabbed a foothold in many parts of east Asia, which is no surprise considering Disney’s impact in the same region.

The rise of Asian Christmas is partly due to a more globalized labor force, which means more westerners are living abroad, bringing a demand for Christmas products. However, for the hosts of those nations, children are also a factor. For most people in Asia, family is the first priority. Children are naturally drawn to the western Christmas world’s cartoon pageantry.

In Japan, it is common for parents to buy children gifts (though not for other adults because the presents must all come from Santa). However, Christmas is seen more as a romantic holiday – much like Valentine’s Day. Therefore, giving flowers and chocolates over Christmas is considered normal.

Japanese people like the spirit of generosity, though most have no religious connection to the festival. Nonetheless, Japan still has its own European-inspired Weinachtespyramid in the Tokyo Christmas Market.

Meanwhile, South Korea is 30 percent Christian and celebrates a national holiday on December 25. The country even has its own Santa Hariboji, which translates as ‘Grandfather Santa’. Wearing a traditional Korean gat (a wide-brimmed top hat) and outfitted in a blue or green suit, Santa Hariboji figurines are present in homes across the country in December.

Indonesia and Thailand have their own festive customs as well. For example, Thailand’s mostly Buddhist population is famous for religious tolerance- and a penchant for partying – so seeing street parties with dancing elephants during this period is quite normal.

Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, yet many parts of Bali pay tribute with fireworks and bamboo cannons, holding Christmas tree decorating competitions for children. The traditional Penjor tree is made of rice branches and coconut fronds, beset with a bag of general household products in the center.

Meanwhile, in the Catholic Philippines, Christmas is huge. Pinoys and Pinays bring their Christmas A-game in December. Officially starting December 16, locals attend nine masses, ending on Christmas Day, and the celebrations continue until January 1 on Epiphany.

In addition, Filipinos decorate their land with paróls: giant, colorful bamboo wreaths. Within each, a star represents goodwill, love, and the famous Star of Bethlehem.

Westernizing the East?

With the Chinese being huge fans of Disney, there is no surprise Christmas cheer is popular in many areas. Shanghai Disneyland® Resort opened in 2016 (which followed Hong Kong Disneyland® Resort in 2005) due to Frozen and other big franchise successes.

Over Christmas, Shanghai’s resort brings thousands of revelers to rub shoulders with their favorites. The experience begins with famous characters dancing on the streets in Christmas outfits and posing for photos with wide-eyed enthusiasts.

When night comes, the famous castle and its surrounding Fantasyland plaza become a celebration of color and light. Of course, there is also a cabaret of performances from the kids’ heroes – no Disney character epitomizes Christmas in China more than Frozen‘s Elsa. She is usually center-stage for much of the celebration.

This comes with other extras: snow machines create a glittering shower over the streets. At the same time, ice sculptures of all the characters line the avenues, and 3D projections cover all the buildings.

But it isn’t only Disneyland® that gets into the festive spirit in China. Major cities and even smaller ones adopt Christmas lights, trees, and decorations. Amusingly, it is common to see these still up in some businesses long into the following year.

Locals in China need no excuse for hanging decorations and setting off fireworks. Beijing, Nanjing, and Chengdu are renowned for dazzling light displays and trees in their plazas and malls, among other opulent exhibitions.

China’s largest city, Shanghai, is usually a must-see for visitors over Christmas, with extravagant fantasy lands taking over outdoor plazas, three different Christmas markets, and the occasional giant Santa straddling mall entrances.

Guangzhou once staged a giant pillow fight on Christmas Day. Even in other provinces, events like the Harbin penguin march and Santa ostrich races are part of the celebrations. China can be a fun place to spend Christmas. However, this is changing in the present day.

The Grinch That Stole China’s Christmas

Up until a few years ago, Christmas was growing in China. With a reported 1.4 million foreigners living across the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau in 2020, Christmas was a firm part of many residents’ winter.

Sadly, this number has fallen over the past two years due to visa restrictions and foreign entry requirements in the wake of the pandemic. Even before that, relations were weak between the U.S. and China after President Trump’s economic war with Beijing.

It even got to the point of censorship by some reports. In 2018, at least four cities canceled their Christmas celebrations, and most schools gave students the same news. This came after suspected political intervention from the Communist Party leaders in those provinces.

In Nanyang city that year, it took 24 hours for a 27-story shopping plaza to remove every Christmas tree, bell, and bauble within sight. When orders arrive in China, there is little time to spare. Considering the ruling party’s full tilt towards nationalism and its manifesto to uphold Chinese traditions, it is no shock.

Last year, China began removing western influence from media, literature, and especially school classrooms. In addition, they banned English language learning materials and after-school classes, which they considered a threat to the current plan.

Some of the labels the increasingly hostile C.C.P. gave Christmas recently show the decline. “Festival of Shame” was one moniker, with reports of police ordering all Christmas decorations to be removed from public display. Another label was “Western spiritual opium”, with the idea that China needs to purge western thinking and enhance its traditions and customs.

One tradition in the center of the clampdown was the traditional Chinese hanfu, a long Chinese dress worn since ancient times, though sometimes worn with western accessories like jeans.

Since the move toward nationalism, sales of this historic female outfit rocketed, but there was a minor outcry that western or Christmas-themed hanfus should be illegal.

It is unclear how festive Christmas in China will be in 2022: a quick search for Christmas hanfus on Taobao is empty these days.

Still, there is some encouragement because Christmas decorations and trees are available. Moreover, there is no doubt Shanghai Disneyland® and others will keep at least some of the winter cheer.

The feeling now is that westerners living in China will still be able to celebrate, just as long as they don’t do it too loudly.

This article was written by Benjamin Rice and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

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