The Ghost at Chinese Christmas

For many in China, Christmas is just not quite the same as the long-lost holiday back home…


It was late November a few years back, when I first learned of the confused spirit of Chinese Christmas. A Dongguan shopping mall bedecked in sparkly tinsel and other tacky baubles was leaving me spaced-out when a friend and I spotted a seven-foot Santa statue, complete with scraggly beard, bright red coat and, oddly, what looked like a set of bongo drums.

“I know who that guy is,” said my mate Robin, an English language professor from Hunan.

“Yeah?” I said, wondering his point.

“It’s Jesus,” Robin said, confidently.

My spontaneous giggling seemed to annoy Robin before he interjected: “Don’t laugh; how am I supposed to know the meaning of Christmas? I’m Chinese.”

He had a point, of course.

If all you know is that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a baby that grows up to perform miracles before founding a fantastical religion, well, when the most important day for that religion comes around and all you see is this benevolent, bearded bloke in a snazzy red suit, what are you supposed to think?

One wonders if many others in China have made the same innocent mistake—confusing the son of God with a guy who lives with elves and hands out toys to kids. A mate of mine swears blind that he has seen an icon of Father Christmas nailed to a cross in a shopping mall in central Hebei as part of their decoration. To this day, I still don’t know if he is pulling my leg.

By the time the meal had arrived, Cassio had disappeared, apparently upset that this particular Christmas was not living up to his standards—later, this transpired to be an excuse to pay a visit to his mistress’ event across town.

Christmases in China are weird. Last year, for example, was not quite a day of festive joy. On Christmas Day, I nipped out of the office to a Sichuan restaurant with a colleague before later popping back to continue editing. Not very Christmassy. My Jewish grandmother, who was always annoyed that my mother celebrated Christmas with such reckless abandon, would have beamed with pride.

Expat Christmases come in many forms. For some, it happens at a fancy, soulless hotel with “friends” they barely know. Others go out to dinner to swap presents with their Chinese girlfriends, only to be confused at being given an apple (a bizarre Chinese Christmas tradition that has something to do with Eve). Then, there are those that keep it vaguely traditional by having a home-cooked meal with whoever constitutes family—and usually involves stuffing an undersized chicken into an electric oven. More than a few just pretend that Christmas isn’t happening at all.

But there is one thing almost every expat will tell you about celebrating Christmas in China: “It is just not the same.” If you want the carols, trees, turkeys, stockings and to deck the hall with boughs of holly, you’ll have to try very hard.

Still, Christmas in China was never likely to be the same, was it? The nation proudly announces it is not remotely religious at any given opportunity. Though, after sitting in Starbucks and hearing a Cantonese cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas” for the third time in an afternoon, it is hard not to be deceived.

My first Christmas in China was spent at the Dongguan University of Technology. It was a small group of us: Ewan, an alcoholic Aussie with a heavy dope habit, Cassio, an engineering lecturer from Mali and a collection of assorted wives and girlfriends dragged along against their will.

We were to have a meal at Ewan’s at 4 pm. On arrival, Ewan initiated a gift-giving ceremony, which was all the usual stuff: novelty alarm clocks, fake perfumes, cheap shower gels, a “comedy” sex toy and so on. By the time the meal had arrived, Cassio had disappeared, apparently upset that this particular Christmas was not living up to his standards—later, this transpired to be an excuse to pay a visit to his mistress’ event across town. He left behind a girlfriend in tears, pissed-off guests and, thankfully, a bottle of champagne used to wash away the pain.

Regardless of ending up thrown together with random punters, being unable to open presents with family or not eating turkey and stuffing anywhere near as good as your mom can make, Christmas gives us time to pause and reflect on things close to our heart—to offer goodwill to all men (and women). I think that’s something we can all get behind.

Whether it is just being fortunate for what we have, offering a charitable hand to someone in need or simply finding a key opportunity to drink yourself into oblivion on a bar stool in an expat pub, Christmas is a special time and we should enjoy its warm embrace. Whatever you plan to do this year—whether enjoyable or just plain strange—make sure that you don’t forget to have a very merry Christmas, indeed!