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A Happy Santa Festival

December 26, 2009

I kind of love learning Mandarin – for a lot of reasons. But one of the reasons is the simplicity and common-sense practicality of the language. Generally-speaking, you don’t need brand-new words for everything, you just put together words that describe it in a literal sense.

For example, why have a new word called a “vase” when you can have a “flower-bottle”? Why “snack” when you can eat “small-food”? Why make up something “different” sounding like “abacus” when you can just have a “bead-counter”? Just call it like you see it, right?

And I think nothing sums up that concept better than the Chinese translation of Christmas: “Santa Festival.” Santa Festival. No reference to Christianity or Christ or anything else religious – it’s just about Santa. And having a party to celebrate him. Which just so happens to entail buying things and giving and getting presents. And that’s really all Christmas is out here – a bunch of faux-Christmas trees, lots of lights, and a big Santa Festival-type atmosphere of consumerism.

Totally different from the States, right?

Uhhhh . . .

Now, I know the secularization of Christmas is little consolation to the thousands (millions?) of Jews and non-Christmas celebrating others in this country who get completely, slap-in-the-face “otherized” by the U.S. government, public school system, and media every single December.* That said – who are we really kidding? Christ might remain the focus of Christmas for a handful of households out there, but the majority of Christmas practitioners in the U.S. are not caught up in notions of sacrifice and redemption on this holiday; no, they are fully immersed in a “Santa Festival.”

They are fretting about “buying the right present” for their family members, significant others, friends, co-workers, etc. They are trying to “beat the Christmas rush” on the malls and other large chain stores. They are going online and paying extra shipping costs on “last-minute gifts” for whomever. In short – they are buying sh–. That’s nothing new. I’m not stating anything other than the obvious. So how ’bout we learn something from the Chinese and just call it what it is, right?

The saddest part of all this, though, is the fact that the Chinese are so whole-heartedly leaping into this festival – and happily so. Mass-marketing and advertising is working SO well here, it’s incredible. Brand-names mean everything. More expensive must mean it’s better . . . except here, more than anywhere else in the world (because this is literally where it’s all made), people know better. Honestly. Everybody here knows exactly how much things really cost to make – because everybody is either involved in the process of producing these goods, or they know somebody who is; and they know where to go to get it at the cheapest price.

And yet . . . and yet they still pay hundreds of times more than a good’s value because of its brand-name and the level of marketing that has gone it. It’s so mind-boggling and doesn’t make any logical sense. But, in other ways, it makes perfect sense.

Because if there’s one reference you’ll hear a million times here in China, it is to the idea of “face.” “Saving face.” “Giving (somebody else) face.” It’s all about the facade and holding up appearances. And there’s no system that’s better designed to capitalize on such a cultural trait as that which is based on said concept: Capitalism.

You’ve got 1.3 billion people raised from infancy to always consider what their neighbors, friends, co-workers, and competitors are thinking of them; instilled with a desperate need to “protect” their family name and reputation by looking a certain way on the outside . . . This country never stood a chance.

The U.S. media machine is so damn sophisticated, designed to work on the most jaded consumers who are used to being deluged with brainwashing marketing techniques – so they must have been drooling when they got their hands on this naive market. Add to that the Chinese inferiority complex when it comes to “the West,”** and you’ve got the perfect formula for a financial bloodbath on this holiest of days: Santa Festival.

But is it really all so bad as I’m making it sound? Is this another “down with Capitalists” rant from a guy whose ancestors would never have survived long enough to give him a chance at life if the Communists (Soviets on my dad’s side, Mao and the gang on my mother’s side) had had their way?

No. Like everything else, this economic system has its positives and redeeming aspects. But I stand in an interesting spot in history once again (this year marks a drastic rise in prominence of this particular festival), and I can’t help but try to get some perspective and history on it.

All that said, I have to admit that I still had fun with my primary kids at their “Christmas Party” last night, and the ornaments they designed were really cute. And with that, this Santa Festival sermon ends.

And to all a good night.

* However, as I shared with a close Jewish friend of mine: I did have myself a more or less “Jewish Christmas” here: went out and saw a movie in the theatre, then ate some Chinese food – no gifts exchanged.

** Here’s a good example: companies trying to get a foot in the door with the government will bring a random white guy that works for them (even if he’s a low-level worker) into their meeting with government officials, because they know that will make the officials take them more seriously.

** *The included photo was taken during my little trip to Hong Kong a few weeks ago . . . If I hadn’t written that, how many of you would have been able to guess?

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One comment

  1. Christmas day, I had a long talk with my mom about celebrations – primarily about New Years. Granted my mom left Japan in the early 70’s and so her perspective is quite different from today and current happenings. My mom’s version of how this all went down is that in Japan they celebrate the New Year. She said that no one celebrated Christmas….well maybe a few people who were Christian….until the Americans came. Until the Americans came. And to top it off she said I know about the “Santa Claus Story”, which I find so ironic in relation to your post. Even after moving to the States, she did not celebrate Christmas, until I was born and then she wanted me to have that experience. Her purpose for Christmas was not one of celebrating Christ but because of Santa. My mom also a hard time explaining some things so forgive me if I have some of this information wrong. In her words and my understanding of it is New Years is more of a celebration in Japan. It is the completion of things and new beginnings. One must tie up loose ends….her example was all of your laundry had to be done and put away and everything clean. On New Years Eve they would eat very long soba noodles signifying longevity. And at midnight people would go to temple and you could here the bells all night. No one shops on New Years as it is seen as bad luck. As far as gifts there are two gifts, one to elders and respected people as tokens of appreciation and the second is money is given to children by family members. The money are in white envelopes with a red and white ribbon. (Gold or Silver would be more for special occasions such as weddings). The children must visit each family to receive the envelope. My mom was very specific in that you do not receive envelopes if you did not visit a family member, unlike here in the States where people may send you money/gifts in the mail and you may never spend time with any of these people. In addition, there are special dishes that (again this is through some loose translation) which make it so no one has to cook. And if I understood her correctly the celebration goes on for several days but I am unclear on how many days. For some reason this sticks out in my mind but may be from another conversation we had about odd number of days – again the odd number being lucky. Growing up I received white envelopes tied with ribbon with money in them….but we had not really talked about the signifcance….interestingly enough my Christmas celebrations with my parents have been much more focused on our meal together. Last year on January 1st, my mom and I made osushi together….much like my mixed race, my celebrations and purpose behind them have blended together.

    So all in all I think it is about perspective….how do you want to celebrate whether it be Christmas, Santa Claus, New Years or not at all? Isn’t about the connections we have with people that really make the most impact? By attaching our own significance whether it be personal, cultural, spiritual or even consumerism we can define how we choose to celebrate any occasion.



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