Christmas Tree Mania in China's Capital

Monday, 8 December 2008

Oh, it's all over now, baby

We're only been here a week, but it seems both Cambodia and Vietnam have jumped onto Santa's sleigh and dashered headlong into the Christmas come-Vixen hoo-ha of the West.

I mean, I guess I kind of expected it - Christmas seems to be everywhere in the world short of the odd pygmy colony sequestered in the depths of the Amazon jungle. Even then, I wouldn't be surprised if pygmies were onto it... if KFC can hold court in Siem Reap, I suppose anything is possible. Perhaps intrepid travellers wouldn't bat an eyelid if they cruised down a remote part of the Amazon in a canoe and happened upon a primal colony with horns through their noses, sipping mulled wine and nibbling on gingerbread men whilst clicking their tongues to Jingle Bells.

So, despite travelling around these very Eastern countries, we're not missing out on the festivities, that's for sure - even if it is in the form of half-cocked Christmas trees in Nha Trang, polystyrene snowmen melting in the muggyness of Ho Chi Minh City or smiling "merry Christmas"es from tour guides in Angkor Wat.

As for China, it seems Christmas has always been there. It has since we arrived in Beijing in 2005, anyway. Each year, it's absolutely no surprise for any of us to see this festive time unfold in pockets all over the city, from the luscious baskets of goodies in hotel foyers to the morass of plastic bling spilling out of market stalls.

But last week, I was riding in a cab past the Worker's Stadium and I saw something really shocking. In fact, it made me gasp out loud and clasp a hand over my mouth to stop me from going "Nooooooo!"

There is stood, tall and high and blinged to within an inch of its life, right in the Stadium's forecourt, poking skyward blatantly, with barefaced audacity and nary a care in the world who saw it or what anyone thought of it.

And what was this horrendous blight on the landscape of Beijing?

It was a giant Christmas tree.

Now, before you "bah humbug, Scrooge!" me, I must remind you that I am truly Mrs Claus incarnate. I love Christmas and everything about it, from the wee baby in the manger to the baubles, mulled wine and goodwill to all men. Yes, I'm even happy to admit I buy into the commercialism. I'll never forget wandering the malls of Singapore two years ago, blatantly delighting in every commercial drop - the piped carols, the decorations, the overpriced gifts, the all-encompassing Christmassy atmosphere.

So, it's not that I've ever had a problem with the appearance of Christmas in Beijing, but in appropriate places - Western haunts, hotels, markets, shops, even on the street. But fronting the forecourt of the Worker's Stadium, an icon of the people of China, a historical gathering point of the people of an atheist state? It just feels odd.

In fact, to me, it's almost sacrilegious - not to Christmas, but to China. It kind of feels wrong. China has it's own beautiful, time-honoured celebrations; to see it plonk a tree in that forecourt... it's just so glaring that it smacks of naught but commercialism. Commercialism in itself is okay, but when it stands alone, with no spirit or ideology to support it... well. It's a glaringly sticky sight indeed.

For me, I want China to remain pure and unsullied by the commercial side of Christmas. I want it to be like our first Christmas in the capital, when the Chinese would smile and wish us a merry Festive season and perhaps join us for a drink or a piece of Christmas cake or a story about the heart behind this Christmas festival.

I want the Chinese to know this important time of year is more than just trees and baubles and buying presents and Santa Claus and how much money they can make from this laowai obsession.

I want them to know the uplifting ideology and emotion we share at Christmastime, just as we have joined in and celebrated the festivals of China. Not just the mooncakes, but the stories behind the mooncakes and how lady Cheng'e flew up to the moon and why the little rabbit in the moon is so lonely. Not just the hong bao but the importance of togetherness during Spring Festival... to know each person is one part of a large family. All that.

The world is indeed getting smaller, and it's a joy to blend and share our cultures and traditions, but it's also of vast importance to keep hold of the essence and history of our respective countries. Hence, when we get back to Beijing in the new year, I know I'll still be cringing at that tree in the Worker's Stadium forecourt.

Change is good, China, but don't go a-changin' too much. Oh - and Happy Christmas.

First published on the City Weekend Beijing website.

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