When I was going to the airport on Beijing Sunday morning to return to Minnesota, my taxi driver asked me what is a very common question these days: "what do you usually do on The Silent Night?" The Chinese language he was using is ping an ye, which is the Chinese name of the popular Christmas carol that we know as Silent Night. For some reason it is a favorite song in China at this time of year, and has come to be what the Chinese use to refer to Christmas Eve, which is big in China, and is anything but silent.
When I first started working in China in the mid-1980's my students had hardly even heard of Christmas. All they knew was that it was the big holiday for westerners, similar to the Chinese Spring Festival, where people went home to spend time with their families, exchange gifts, and eat. There was no official or unofficial mention, let alone celebration, of the holiday. It was another day, plain and simple.
That is definitely no longer the case. In the past decade Christmas has become a huge event in China, albeit one without any meaning beyond consumption. In Beijing, it's best not to think about making a foray into the city on The Silent Night. It's the worst traffic of the year, and the restaurants are full of couples out for a romantic evening–St. Valentines meets St. Nick. China is at essence a consumer society and Christmas being the ultimate consumer event of the year, not just in the West but throughout Asia, they're not about to be left out.
The common sights and sounds of Christmas are familiar–Santa Claus, Christmas trees, bells, lights and Christmas sales. Christmas carols can even be heard wafting through department stores in December. For a longtime China resident it is quite arresting to be standing in an escalator hearing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King."
The one thing missing, of course, is any sign of Baby Jesus, which is probably not due to a Communist Party edict banning the religious aspect of Christmas, but rather because the Chinese are borrowing their Christmas celebrations mainly from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Not surprisingly, beyond the consumer trappings, people don't seem to have a clue what they're celebrating or why. A few years back I was doing some last minute shopping in a Beijing department store on Christmas Eve. Standing next to me at a counter were two young men, also making some purchases. "Joy to the World" was playing in the background as I overheard one man say to the other: "I don't even know what Christmas is. All I know is that if I don't buy my wife a present she'll be angry with me."
I thought that pretty much summed up Christmas in China.
Wherever you are this Silent Night, I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas.