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Viva Christmas!
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Beijing can be a large, lonely city during the Christmas season.


My first year in China I came down with a classic case of the holiday blues, an emotionally crippling affliction that strikes strangers in strange places all over the world. It's true that holidays away from home, regardless of one's faith or lack of it, remind foreigners of their daily routines and rituals, bringing to mind familiar faces of friends and family, so far away from the mother country. Without a sense of belonging or some really good friends and absorbing entertainment, Christmas can leave expats feeling as empty and alone as an old bottle of bai jui after the restaurant has closed and everyone's gone home.


Now, after three years, I found that I’d literally forgotten Thanksgiving and I was more fixated on the Spring Festival than the rites and rituals of Christmas. Learning to live abroad as an expat successfully, at least for me, means incorporating the host country’s norms and traditions into my own life as much as I possibly can. Instead, I have started celebrating the Chinese New Year in lieu of Xmas. With the simpler custom of hong bao - tasteful red envelopes, stuffed with various amounts of cash for kids and employees, I’ve replaced any worries I formerly had in choosing Christmas gifts. But upon reflection I really doubt that any European or North American could ever forget about the Christmas season: it’s a fundamental winter holiday designed to spread cheer and hope among family and friends - and here in China it’s a growing time for celebrations.


Clearly, the Chinese people have joyfully embraced Christmas as yet another holiday to be incorporated into the vast array of festivals they celebrate. Not only have they taken on the glamour and romance of Yuletide logs and mistletoe and but also the habits of buying and spending in a frenzy during the months preceding December 25. The evidence is everywhere. Department stores feature employees in Santa costumes, young vendors on the street are wearing sparkly reindeer ears, and tinsel and brightly decorated Christmas trees adorn plazas, hotels and public parks.


Indeed, China is fast taking over the market for Christmas decorations both at home and abroad. Shopping centers are jam packed with images of Santa and his reindeer in paper, plaster, plastic and porcelain. Huge piles of Christmas cards rest next to the traditional Chinese New Year cards. Festive gift bags denoting the holiday lie waiting to be filled. Shoppers stroll intently, eager to find bargains that they can wrap and present to their friends. “We are enjoying being consumers at Christmastime,” said Li Ming. “It makes me feel generous and grateful for all the changes China has gone through. I am happy to be rich enough to buy nice gifts for my family and friends.”


The Chinese market economy certainly looks like it has gone into high gear during the month of December. As inflation rises, hopes for a better life also go up among the growing class of affluent Chinese. Shopping malls with designer imports, luxury goods and expensive foreign cars advertise the fact that China may be calling herself a developing country but there is no doubt that enough conspicuous wealth exists in large Chinese cities to fund these exotic consumer paradises. “There are hundreds of thousands millionaires in Beijing, more than any other city in the world,” an expat businessman recently said.


Taking on all the accoutrements of the western world has both benefited and plagued New China. With the advent of a booming economy serious environmental issues have also appeared. As some of China’s entrepreneurs get rich first and fast other workers look at them askew and wonder, often resentfully, why they are seemingly stuck in dead end, low paying jobs. The disparity between rich and poor is getting wider and more obvious as the year 2007 heads to a close. For this Christmas season in China perhaps the best gift to hope for is an effective and timely resolution to the question of who is responsible for China’s environmental degradations. Another stocking stuffer would certainly be a wish for powerful economic leadership to guide the country into a market economy that does not heedlessly suffer the scary surges western countries have encountered. Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward Men is no longer enough: China needs environmental responsibility and great economists to bring in a hopeful, prosperous New Year.


( by Valerie Sartor December 17, 2007)

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