Robert Foyle Hunwick writes: There’s a joke going around: “Santa Claus was descending into China from the sky. Due to the heavy smog, he fell to the ground, but no one dared help him up. While he was still lying in the snow, his bag was ransacked for presents, and his reindeer and sleigh taken away by the chengguan. Therefore, no Christmas this year.”
While some of the humor needs context—there are digs at China’s notorious bystander effect and much-despised urban-management officials, chengguan — the larger meaning is clear. Ironic jokes about Santa’s routine being disrupted with uniquely Chinese characteristics are a sure sign that, yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in communist China.
Retailers lead the way here: An annual spending season that once focused on Chinese New Year in the winter is now bloated and elongated, stretching from the invented Singles’ Day on November 11 through February, with Christmas as a kind of hump day. Even before December, shops, streets, and hotels begin filling with slightly off-kilter Yuletide scenes: performers in elf suits play traditional cymbals while a grinning plastic Santa Claus toots a saxophone outside his gingerbread cabin. Why the sax? Theorists point to everything from the instrument’s romantic associations with the avuncular Bill Clinton jamming on one in the 1990s, to the smooth alto-sax muzak that’s the preferred soundtrack of Santa’s typical dwelling, the shopping mall.
There’s no sign of Jesus, but in many big cities, you’re still more likely to see Father Christmas’s face than that of “Uncle” Xi Jinping, as state media has characterized the country’s president, presenting a homely, familial image that’s quite at odds with the repressive manner in which he’s coldly eliminated opponents. But Xi is not above the fray himself, visiting Santa’s official cabin in Rovaniemi, Finland in 2010.
The Western religious festival is so trendy, in fact, that it may be the second-most-celebrated festival in China after the Spring Festival among young Chinese, according to research conducted by the China Social Survey Institute (CSSI), which found that 15- to 45-year-olds are the most likely to observe it. [Continue reading…]