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Sunday, Dec. 24, 2000

Do they know it's Christmas in Xian?

Yes, in some form or another, they do


By PIERRE FULLER
Staff writer

In the cradle of Chinese civilization, Christmas -- in all its commercial fury -- has taken Xi'an city by storm. Today, in this one-time imperial seat now famed for its terra-cotta warriors, storefronts blink Christmas red and green, Santa Claus poses for photos in supermarkets, employees don festive red caps and even the roaming garbage trucks sound a continuous synthesized variation of "Jingle Bells." Put simply, Santa and his cheer-wagon are everywhere.

Doubtless, this was not always the case. No one knows today how many Christians are in China, and estimates range anywhere from 15 million to the more than 60 million claimed by Western missions, hardly a dent in a population of over 1.2 billion. (Shady official statistics and a huge underground church presence render guesses even more speculative.) But the increasing number of public celebrants of this Christian festival in China illustrates a peculiar side of the present globalization: the apparent wholesale adoption of an alien custom, even if in this case it's proved to be largely secular in nature, little more than an excuse to drink and be merry.

On a corner of a well-trimmed Xi'an boulevard, the Wenbuo restaurant faces the impressive Shaanxi Provincial History Museum. And no more than a few hundred meters from the museum's antique jade and ceramic displays, the restaurant boasts a 2-meter-high Christmas tree, blinking lights and a window display of holiday greetings -- all in English. With tinsel and bulb ornaments hanging overhead, the manager, Yao Xiao'ai, says she began decorating the restaurant two years ago for the added atmosphere.

"Our employees are all young and Christmas to them is romantic and cheerful," she says. "But they really don't know much about it."

She is not the only one decorating. Santa placards hang from about every third storefront on her block.

Gao Mei runs a large hair salon not far down the road. On its glass storefront, the images of a snowman, a reindeer and a caroling choirboy are stenciled with sprayed artificial frost. Gao says she first put up such decorations in her shop a few years ago and has done it every December since. Chinese like the festive environment, so it helps business, she says.

In the beginning

Christmas was effectively introduced to Xi'an, an industrial city in the economically depressed northwest, 20 years ago -- religion, foreign elements in particular, having been stamped out nationwide by the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Yet foreign fashions have been slow to catch on in this conservative region, well over a thousand kilometers from the more cosmopolitan coastal cities of Shenzhen and Shanghai. Large hotels -- such as the Hyatt and Sheraton in town, as well as local ones -- led the way in recent years by introducing holiday themes in their lobbies or on murals out front for their foreign clientele. Night clubs followed suit, many eager to create an international feel as well as promote their expensive foreign drink menus. However, Christmas symbols did not jibe with the wider public until a few years ago, and only last year was a surge in popularity fully palpable.

While holiday motifs have just begun to pepper the city this year, experiences from recent winters strongly suggest what is to come this Christmas season. Last Dec. 24, a few thousand people converged on the city center, parading throughout the evening down Dong Dajie, Xi'an's main shopping avenue, effectively closing it to traffic. The occurrence had all the markings of a spontaneous public celebration, with no apparent official planning or even company sponsorship.

Two years ago, there was noticeably less street activity on Christmas Eve, though close to a thousand people did assemble beside the 16th-century Bell Tower, bearing the cold to hear caroling from a stage set up beside a massive Coca-Cola Co.-sponsored Christmas tree. The same night, a party next door hosted by the chic Ginwa shopping center was canceled at the last minute by police because a sea of bodies had shown up and dangerously overcrowded the mall.

Admittedly, Christmas is privately celebrated in only a sprinkling of apartment blocks around this city of over 5 million. The holiday is no family event here by any count. However, the enthusiastic adoption of Christmas symbols, in large part as a marketing tool by the small business community, has afforded the Christmas holiday a disproportionate amount of public exposure on the storefronts and department stores lining the busy streets. When asked, most passersby hardly know what to think of Santa Claus, this jolly Westerner whose mug adorns so many buildings in town.

Big business

Gin Xisheng's shop, a few paces from the main provincial government building, has perhaps the largest selection of Christmas items in the city. Nearly all of the things lining his shelves -- flashy ornaments, synthetic wreaths and trees, Santa suits -- are made in southern Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong. Judging by the exclusively English labels on most of the products, much of what is in his store was produced for export.

Gin says business is up 30 to 40 percent from last year, despite increasing competition from stores stocking up on similar items throughout the city. Most of these stores, like Gin's, are floral shops during the year and convert only for the Christmas season. As a father and son haul home a large plastic tree behind him, Gin says customers spend anywhere from 50 to 400 yuan ($6 to $50) on decorations. He says they are mostly university students or businessmen who use Christmas to entertain partners or clients.

With the third largest number of colleges in China, Xi'an has a huge student population and it clearly takes the initiative in promoting the "yuletide spirit." Wei Jihong, a student at the Foreign Language University, says that in her hometown in coastal Jiangsu Province, few had even heard of Christmas.

"But here at university everyone cares," she says in her dormitory. Like many of her classmates, in the past few years she has begun exchanging greeting cards and small gifts with friends, she says. As well, like last year, she'll be going out this Christmas Eve, adding that nightclubs and bars will be open all night.

However, Tang Hongdeng, Wei's classmate, says he considers this new craze to be just a passing fad and that his family in neighboring Hubei Province also knew nothing of Christmas. He says he believes the unusual holiday buzz that started last year was merely spillover from millennium hype.

Santa who?

It is hard to determine whether Santa is here to stay. Some people, especially parents, express some dismay over this recent frenzy among the new generation. Yet, there are curious ways in which this new phenomenon mimics traditional Chinese customs. For example, Santa -- a red-clad bearded fellow mostly posted here in pairs on entrance doors -- can easily be taken for a jolly version of the fearsome men shen (door gods). Most families post these colorful characters in pairs on their doors during the Chinese New Year, traditionally done to repel evil spirits.

The business community, however, is not the only group riding high on this newfound festivity. Local churches -- officially five in number -- have had a recent surge in attendance on Christian holidays.

There are about 250,000 Christians spread over 480 official parishes in Shaanxi Province, according to Wei Lemin, a committee member of the Provincial Christian Patriotic Movement. Like nearly all official Protestant

Churches in mainland China, his Nanxin Street Church is nondenominational, part of a hybrid "patriotic" church controlled by the state. His downtown Xi'an parish alone anticipates a crowd of 3,000 for the Christmas Eve service -- nearly 10 times the size of a usual Sunday crowd, he says.

These mostly young and curious newcomers have been overwhelming in number. During Christmas Eve services the past two years, all three of the churches in the downtown area have required police crowd control at their entrances to handle the onlookers spilling out of the naves and into the streets.

Wei says a substantial number of people do return after their first visit to the church, and that the ratio of young to old in his overwhelmingly elderly parish is narrowing fast. This is a sure sign of growth for the Xi'an churches, eager for younger members. Indeed, a large number of Xi'an's present church-goers embraced Christianity as far back as before the 1949 victory of the avowedly atheist communists over Chiang Kaishek's Nationalist regime. Chiang himself became a Christian later in life.

Since church activities in mainland China today are restricted by law to church grounds, and outreach is limited to word-of-mouth, Wei says that many worshippers first learn about Christianity from radio stations such as God's Free Radio, broadcast from Hong Kong in Mandarin.

Wei does not, however, express any enthusiasm for the Christmas craze occurring outside his parish walls.

"The church celebration here, and the Santa decoration everywhere outside, are two very different things," he says in his office, as bells outside summons worshippers.

In light of the ongoing crackdown on the spiritual Falun Gong movement, the fact that this extraordinary -- albeit much smaller -- growth in a purely foreign holiday has not provoked any apparent reaction by the state can attest to the essentially commercial nature of the Christmas emerging in mainland China.

Indeed, any holiday that can rouse consumers and drive up sales must ring well with both a burgeoning private sector and a regime that has staked so much on China's economic growth.

As well, last year the Christmas season coincided with the handover of Macau, over which Beijing went to great pains to stir pride among the public. The tiny flags sold and waved on streets all over the nation -- red for the People's Republic and green for Macau -- could hardly have better complemented the Christmas colors. And vice versa.



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