In the English-speaking and European world, Christmas is fraught with meaning, tradition, and expectation and it starts early.
It was great seeing pictures of Christmas trees, wandering mischievous Elves, Christmas lights and children’s performances on social media.
Whenever I was online, it was easy to imagine that everyone everywhere in the whole entire world was celebrating Christmas in various ways.
Which is true, in some ways.
Then I realized that at least 1 billion people around me don’t celebrate at all and have no clue what all the fuss is about.
Sure, the mega-malls here have Christmas trees and English Christmas music playing, and Starbux sells holiday-themed drinks.
Of course the stores all have Christmas shopping deals and the new consumer-friendly China is capitalizing on the earning potential.
But, when I talked to any of my friends, acquaintances and strangers about what Christmas actually involves or what it means, they are clueless to the nth degree.
In discussing our plans, they ask, “You’re going out on the town to shop on Christmas Day, right?”
One of our American friends who teach English had one of their Chinese colleagues come over on Christmas Eve to play games and have family time together.
As he was leaving, he said, “I’m also free tomorrow, if you want to play some racquetball.”
He just didn’t get it, that it was pretty much one of the biggest holidays of the year in the western world.
It’s actually a great time to discuss the deeper meaning of Christmas, beyond the commercial hype.
The registered church we attend had a special Christmas celebration inviting hundreds of college students to celebrate and hear the Good News that was proclaimed by angels 2000 years ago, about a child named Jesus who was born to save mankind and how this Good News is still relevant today.
For most Chinese people, it is a busy stressful regular workday like all others.
We invited a family with a 10 year old daughter over to decorate gingerbread houses, and the father dropped her off, while the mother was still in meetings until about 6 or 7 pm.
If you walked outside on Christmas Day, you could not tell a single thing was different.
It’s kind of strange being a minority here during these very significant holidays, and it makes you realize how ethnocentric our deepest perceptions and assumptions about traditions are, here and in our home countries.
I should not be surprised that Christmas is not an official holiday in an atheist Communist country, of course.
If you look at it another way, 1.3 billion people in China, plus Taiwan, Hong Kong and all the places around Asia celebrate the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), which is coming up at the end of January.
If you can imagine 1.3 billion people all getting on trains, roads and planes to go to their hometown on the same day, US holiday travel congestion is a drop in the bucket.
If you are a single working woman closer to 30 (one of the “left-behind women” in China), you may be planning to “rent” a fake boyfriend to take home to silence the old wagging tongues and get them off your back for the holiday.
If you are divorced but didn’t tell your relatives, you escape somewhere on a secret vacation so they don’t know that you’re not with your ex-husband’s family on the first and second day, as expected.
If you are one of the 600+ million rural citizens, and work in a big city on the coast, this may be the only time all year you travel home to see your spouse and child, perhaps riding a train for 30-50 hours eating ramen noodles and sunflower seeds the entire way.
It may be the only time your child sees either of his parents, who both work far away while grandparents take care of him.
The largest fireworks panorama you could ever imagine starts at dusk and goes on until 1 am.
And if you go outside on the morning of the first day, the streets that are always teeming with millions of people are completely silent.
In the mind of the Chinese person, is there anyplace on earth that doesn’t celebrate the Spring Festival?
So on we go, learning and shedding assumptions every day.
For instance, I just found out yesterday (New Year’s Eve, solar calendar), that nobody really does much of anything on December 31st here.
For 4 years I have mindlessly assumed that everybody everywhere stays up to watch the clock turn and welcome in the new year.
Well guess what?
People don’t even watch that ball drop on TV, let alone stay up later than normal before going to bed.
In fact, the solar calendar is such a recent inclusion in life in China that most people over a certain age (maybe 40s) only know their lunar birthday, not their solar birthday.
Even the calendar is up for grabs when it comes to cultural norms.
Don’t let the global brands of coffee shops, cars and clothing fool you into thinking that we are all on the same page when it comes to deeper assumptions, perceptions and normative values.
Let’s rather continue to be students of human nature and culture through cultivating enduring and meaningful friendships with those who are not like us.
It’s so rewarding.
[I was unable to post photos for some mysterious reason-will try to do so later]