Note: This is an essay I wrote in 2001.
“Silent Night” is probably the most loved of all Christmas carols in China, at least among those who know Christmas carols. In this society, “sweet” music tends to be favored by the masses and “Silent Night” is definitely in the “sweet” music category.
In Chinese, it is called Ping An Ye (Peaceful and Calm Night). Somehow, in the past few years, Christmas Eve has come to be known as “The Silent Night.” Ping An Ye.
I first heard Christmas Eve itself referred to as the Silent Night back in 1997 when my sister and her family were spending Christmas with me in Changchun. At that time, Christmas was just beginning to seep into the consciousness of urban Chinese. A few stores sold trees, there were Santas here and there, but that was about it. I had taken my three teenage nieces to a local beauty parlor for a hair wash/massage — one of the cultural experiences on the list for them.
So there we were, on Christmas Eve in China’s Northeast, getting our hair washed. The girls loved it, and the workers in the beauty parlor were thrilled to have three gorgeous foreign girls to ‘work on.’ We chatted about lots of things, then one worker suddenly said, “Hey it’s the Silent Night! What do you usually do in America on the Silent Night?” We explained to them that it was normally a quiet night (ping-an, in fact), a time when family and friends are home together. I assured them that going out to get our hair washed was definitely not an American Christmas Eve custom.
Fast forward to 2001….much has changed in China since that Christmas in1997. Where once Christmas was barely heard of, it has now become a grand consumer festival. The evidence is everywhere. Enough Santas to sink a ship. Sitting in MacDonald’s listening to The Chipmunks sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Christmas Carols — religious and secular — blaring from all the shops. Sheng Dan Jie — The Holy Birth Festival — is in. It’s hip. It’s cool. And it’s culmination is Christmas Eve — Ping An Ye — the Silent Night.
Only Christmas in urban China has become a party night — a night to go out to eat, to shop, to be with your ‘significant other.’ Even Schlotzky’s Deli had a special romantic meal for two, complete with goblets of wine. St. Nicholas meets St. Valentine.
I was out with a colleage on Christmas Eve, trying to get to a church service. As we sat in a traffic jam, my friend told me of a conversation she’d had with a student the week before. They were discussing Chritmas and its rising popularity in China. Like us, the student was puzzled. “Why is China doing this,” he wondered. “We have our own festivals and holidays.” Admittedly, since we were stuck in the mother of all traffic jams on the 2nd Ring Road, we shared that sentiment.
One thing we were sure of, however, was that in modern China, Christmas Eve is anything but ping an.
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(photo source: china.org.cn)