Western holidays come to China
The Chinese just finished celebrating Spring Festival, the most important holiday of the year when families get together from throughout the country to feast on special foods and rekindle relationships. Commemorating the start of the Lunar New Year, the holiday closely resembles our Thanksgiving, but it lasts for at least two weeks, usually in February, when almost all business grinds to a screeching halt.
When I first went to live and teach in Shanghai as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 1991, I learned that the Chinese not only celebrated Lunar New Year, but our Western New Year on Jan. 1, as well. In fact, as a consultant to Radio Shanghai, I was invited to a celebration of our New Year's Eve at Longhua Temple, presided over by Buddhist monks, and attended by the Shanghai mayor and the U.S. consulate general.
That year it also was possible to find remnants of Christmas ornaments and "German" nutcrackers in some tiny shops. I even ordered a real Christmas tree from a local florist that was delivered on a bicycle-driven delivery cart. It was real, but calling it a live tree would be stretching the matter since its trunk was solidly imbedded in a pot full of dried dirt that was as hard as concrete. The needles began to fall as soon as it was placed indoors, and when we tried to get rid of the tree, we couldn't get it out of the pot. The only recourse was to throw it over the balcony so it could be dragged to the trash bin.
The skimpy Christmas decorations and straggly trees in 1991 were available mostly in Shanghai, and bought almost exclusively by ex-pats from other countries living in the city. There were no public displays of Christmas decorations anywhere, which was understandable because that was early in China's "opening up," as it was called, and almost every business was still owned and operated by the Chinese government.
Imagine my astonishment during my second Fulbright tour of duty in 1997 when public Christmas decorations began popping up all over Shanghai well in advance of Dec. 25, and lingered well into Spring Festival. In fact, decorations for both hung out together as if they were just one big holiday. What had changed was capitalism and commercialism. Foreign-owned department stores saw the marketing potential and jumped on it; Chinese merchandisers followed in order to compete.
Starting in about 2000, Feb. 14 became "Lovers' Day," which corresponded to one of my frequent trips during that time. I remember walking near Shanghai's famous Bund, and seeing all the people sitting on the sidewalks selling single red roses. A Chinese friend explained that young men were buying the roses to give to their sweethearts.
Fast forward to January 2013, and my most recent trip to Shanghai. Christmas has become pervasive, with office buildings and restaurants joining department stores in sporting decorated trees trimmed with ribbons and studded with multi-colored lights - the same ones the Chinese export to this country by the millions. Lighted stars in various shapes and sizes top trees and illuminate holiday displays on the busiest streets - the meaning, of course, is artistic not religious.
Not to be left out, small shops spray bells and Merry Christmas wishes on their windows with decals. Did I mention that Jingle Bells is a favorite song and is played incessantly during the holidays. And the Christmas spirit isn't limited just to Shanghai City. In the very small canal town of Xin Tang two hours away, rosy-cheeked Santas smiled at me from windows and doors in every direction.
One could say that Christmas is only acknowledged by retailers, but my Chinese friend Parker Wang and his wife Rae said many of their friends got together for dinner on Christmas Day this year. Interestingly, gifts are given by the Chinese at Spring Festival, not Christmas,
But by melding both holidays, the merchants have extended the shopping season much as they do in this country.
One of my former Chinese students, Gu Wei, is now editor of "China Wealth and Luxury" for The Wall Street Journal. She wrote that luxury brands rolled out "a menagerie of merchandise" this year to capitalize on the Lunar New Year holiday, which she called Asia's biggest shopping season. She added that gifts ranged from a few bank notes in a red envelope (red is considered a lucky color) to limited edition Mercedes-Benz Smart Cars and $150,000 watches purchased by the growing wealthy class (China now has more billionaires than the United States.)
As for Lovers' Day, sometime between 2000 and 2013, it officially became Valentine's Day, and it is celebrated with great show. Thousands of young couples stroll through Shanghai dressed in their finest clothing. The single rose, however, has grown into huge bunches of flowers carried openly on the streets.
The Chinese take great stock in the meaning of numbers, almost to a superstition. Wang says giving 11 roses is a symbol of longevity. Of course, 99 is an even luckier number and Wang says some people actually do present their Valentines with bunches of that many roses - so much for the dozen long-stemmed roses in our culture.
Not to neglect the rest of the year, the Chinese also commemorate Mother's Day and Father's Day, but they are one up on us with Bachelor's Day in honor of the large number of single men in the country. The date for this day is auspiciously Nov. 1, which being 11-1, represents the single state to the Chinese.
Well, there's not much else to say, but I do have one question. With all this embracing of Western culture and holidays, can the Easter Bunny be far away?