Christmas Mutated

Last week at work I had this conversation:

> A: John, you have an activity on Saturday.

> J: This Saturday? The 25th?

> A: Right.

> J: I can’t. It’s Christmas.

> A: Why can’t you?

> J: It’s Christmas. I have Christmas things to do.

> A: It’s just for an hour.

> J: No. It’s Christmas.

> A: OK, I’ll tell them.

Later I was approached by my supervisor:

> V: John, I realize it’s Christmas, but can you please work on Saturday?

> J: No.

> V: Come on, it’s just for an hour…

> J: Don’t you see something wrong with me giving up my own time on Christmas to teach little Chinese kids about why Christmas is important to Westerners?

> V: Ummm…

> J: So I won’t do it.

> V: But the company has already agreed to do it, and the kindergarten has already notified all the parents. Neither side can cancel it now without a big loss of face!

> J: Well, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still Christmas. My answer is no.

They ended up finding someone else to do it.

Christmas Eve

I had nothing specific planned, really. My girlfriend and I went out to eat with Carl and one of Carl’s Chinese friends. We all dressed up a little, and the restuarant was nice. We ate stuff Chinese people like to eat such as crab. It was good.

After dinner Carl’s friend, like many young Chinese people, it seems, wanted to celebrate Christmas Eve partying at a bar. Since no one had a better idea, we headed to Hengshan Lu, Shanghai’s nice bar street. What a mistake. It seemed like all the young people in the city had the same idea. Bars that usually charged no cover were charging cover. Bars that usually charged cover were doubling or tripling it. And yet, the bars were packed. My girlfriend and I decided to go home. We left Carl and his friend to their own pursuits.

Being in China for the holidays creates a lot of weird feelings in me that are hard to put into words. That night, though, my feelings were clear. To me, Christmas Eve is not a time to be living it up at bars. It’s a quiet night meant to be spent with loved ones.

Back at my quiet apartment, sitting in the glow of a cute little fake Christmas tree assembled with care, I started to feel better. But I could still feel a kind of pressure on me. It had something to do with my company wanting me to work on Christmas teaching about Christmas, with the throngs of young Chinese people in bars on Christmas Eve, and with the ubiquitous Christmas decorations that just seemed to try too hard — and for what?

I went to bed fairly early.

Christmas Day

Christmas Day I got up and went to mass at Xujiahui Cathedral. The mass was pretty unmoving, and the Christmas songs came out kinda stuffy. Throughout the mass, tourists were wandering into the service to have a look at what the Christians were up to. They were probably all pretty disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed, though. I felt better.

I’m not trying to write something as cheesey as “I went to church and found the true meaning of Christmas.” That’s not it. It’s more like, “the ‘Christmas’ around me, being constantly shoved in my face, bore only a superficial resemblance to the Christmas I knew, and what lay underneath it all was scary. Getting to church confirmed that what I knew was real, and I wasn’t the one who was losing it.

After that, Christmas was more fun. We were having some friends over to the new apartment. I just happened to find Knight Rider – Season One from a vendor in the subway on my way to the grocery store that afternoon, so I picked that up. I invented the very simple “Knight Rider drinking game” (anytime anyone says “Michael,” you drink) and we played it to the amazingly long 2-hour pilot “episode.” We had Papa John’s pizza delivered. We played the pyramid drinking game. Then, when we were all nicely happy, we played Eat Poop You Cat. Yes, it sounds lame, and there were definitely skeptics at the party before it got going, but the game won everyone over pretty quickly and we were laughing so much it hurt.

It was a weird Christmas. But it was happy.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Christmas is not a Chinese holiday. Though the smart business people who own those bars understand that Christmas is a holiday that is capitalized on, please understand that Christmas fell on a Saturday, and New Years will fall on a Friday. I cannot remember such an awesome schedule to enjoy the holidays (if you’re in your teenage years and can get out of the house – there’s no pressing need to be with family in those years – you just want to get out!). From my recollection, the only thing the Chinese knew about Christmas was the “Father Christmas” figure. Lights and wreaths were just making their way into stores and hopefully, won’t infiltrate the market in the years to come.

    There were A LOT of tree “farms” with unsold trees – trailer trash in the parking lot with hundreds of trees with their lights hooked up to the public power lines. The thing is, you don’t pull into a Safeway parking lot to take home the tree. Those people have forgotten that it’s the time spent with family going into the valley to hack down the tree, get tree sap all over the hands, haul it to the car, and take it home to decorate.

    Like the Christmas Tree analogy, people have missed 95% of what Christmas is and that’s spending time with family. It’s the ONE time all year that brings us back to our humble roots.

    You’re right, John, spending the evening in a bar is pretty scary on Christmas night. But in all fairness, you’re in China, away from family.

    John, your home party sounded SPOT ON … wish I was there tossin’ ’em back to “Michael.” Rock on.

  2. Da Xiangchang Says: December 28, 2004 at 4:17 am

    I love the fact that the Chinese are celebrating Christmas–or rather, the AMERICAN version of Christmas. I mean, they ain’t doing it for religious reasons, that’s for sure. So, for the Chinese, it’s all about commercial Christmas, which is a mostly American invention. For example, Santa Claus as a fat guy in a red suit originated from Coca-Cola ads from the 1930s, and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was also invented by American advertisers. In other words, even Santa Claus is just another symbol of American capitalism–even if most people aren’t aware of it. And since Christmas worldwide is becoming more and more American (Santa suits, shopping, etc.), everytime the world celebrates Christmas, it’s really celebrating the mass purchase of American products and the enrichment of its multinationals. That’s why I LOVE CHRISTMAS. It makes America richer, and for the Chinese and the rest of the world, they have a good time doing it, even if they’re unaware of it. It’s a win-win situation all around.

  3. Lennet Daigle Says: December 28, 2004 at 10:11 am

    Yep, there are few places I’d rather not be on Christmas Eve or any other night than the bars on Hengshan. My Christmas this year was pleasant and relatively civilized. Another foreign friend and I agreed that here in Hangzhou at least it’s actually easier to find what most people think Christmas should be all about – spending time with friends (if not family) without crowds and chaos and excessive spending. This is my second Christmas in China and both of them have been better than recent ones spent in the US.

  4. Coca-Cola might have dreamed up “Santa Claus,” but that was just a new take on Saint Nicholas. I’m sure the Chinese have no idea about the Coca-Cola connection or the much older tradition from which it came or, as was stated, much about Christmas whatsoever. After 5 less than stellar Christmasses in China, I still can’t articulate, even to myself, why I hate the fact that it is celebrated here. A lapsed Catholic, I’m proof (in my mind, others may disagree) that it is not a purely Christian holiday. And I’ve never been one to criticize others for siezing any excuse to party. But I just hate Christmas celebrations in China! Not just taking part in them, but the whole idea that thousands, maybe millions of people are staying up till midnight on Christmas Eve, or going to bars, because of some kind of misguided notion of “that’s what you do on Christmas.”
    John, you came close but still haven’t put into words what I’m feeling. Can somebody else give it a try, because I’m getting frustrated.

  5. Is that Ryan from Shenzhen?

    We had a foreigner party that actually turned out pretty nice, and sang some carols despite the stares of the PACKED restaurant. It wasn’t like home, but we did speak easy, casual English and meet some nice folk (I put a couple of pictures on the blog).

    But the next day, sitting in the coffee garden by my apartments, with a filipino girl singing jazzed-up Christmas songs, I found myself with tears streaming down my face. Too many Chinese Christmases in a row, I think.

  6. You found Knight-Rider on DVD?!! I gotta keep my eyes open for that one.

  7. Knight Rider on DVD is not as wonderful as it sounds. John and I have watched two episodes in four days, and remembering how painful to watch it is, probably won’t get through the other 19 episodes anytime soon…

  8. Da Xiangchang,

    does EVERY post you write have to warp reality to show how awesome American capitalism is and how it is actually the reason for our existence??

    Give me a break.


    Had a great beach and BBQ Xmas back home after a very lonely one last year in Japan. Glad yours overseas wasn’t a total loss, or much of a loss at all.


  9. I hope you meant “why Christmas is important to Christians (including lapsed Christians)”. Speaking as someone who grew up in the States but doesn’t come from a Christian tradition, Christmas in the States is just a day off from work with nothing to do (as the Jew, lapsed Hindu, and other Chinese-American I hung out with Christmas Day can attest to).

  10. Ok, first of all, I want to say – way to be bad ass with your company, John! That’s awesome!

    I’m not going to get into the “meaning of Christmas” debate, but I would like to offer up another perspective I recently heard from someone – I’m not sure who it was, or their faith.
    However, the person said that they liked that Christmas was celebrated all over the world, because even though the holiday may not have the same meaning to everyone (be it going to bars in Shanghai, or spending quiet time with family over fish and beet soup), people all over the world seem to get into the holiday spirit. Generally, around Christmas time, even though people are stressed, they tend to be a little more thoughtful and generous with others, and that’s a great thing to have going on world-wide. Even if that’s due to American capitalism getting spread all over the place, I definitely think it’s a great by-product.
    (I’m sure that now that I’m saying this, everyone living in China that reads this will tell me that they’ve encountered nothing like this. I haven’t been in China over Christmas, just a few other countries, so I’m just generalizing from what I know.) But I hope that is not the case and that at the very least, the Chinese at least get caught up in the Christmas spirit (and not just boozin it up).

  11. shillingwood Says: December 29, 2004 at 6:08 am

    For Da XiNG CHANG

    Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas. Born in what is now modern Turkey, he was an early Christian bishop who realised that a man with three daughters could not afford a dowry for them and was about to be forced to sell them into prostitution to survive. He secretly dropped presents into their window at night. The grateful father saw him and followed him and gave presents himself as his fortune increased.
    Later the habit spread and the bones were stolen and taken to Bari in S Italy where they became a shrine.
    Italian immigrants brought the tradition to the USA. The firm Coca Cola used it for advertising but they did not invent the idea of warm generosity once a year.

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: December 29, 2004 at 7:54 am

    I’m well aware that Coca Cola didn’t invent Santa Claus. All I’m saying is the iconic Santa Claus–fat guy in a red suit–WAS invented by Coca Cola. And it is THIS Santa Claus that is known the world over, NOT the historic Saint Nicholas who hung out in Turkey or wherever. So everytime you see a person wearing a white beard and a red suit with a pillow stuffed inside, know he is really impersonating the Coca-Cola Santa Claus–Santa Claus as an American marketing icon like Ronald McDonald. And it’s this Santa Claus–and the accompanying American commercialism–that’s overturning established Christmas traditions in other Christian countries. Of course, some people are justifiably unhappy about this; the Germans recently have tried to ban this American Santa Claus in favor of the historic Saint Nicholas. But, of course, it’s a battle these Germans will inevitably lose. All this goes back to my original contention: the Christmas the Chinese are celebrating is a wholly (not holy) American one. Inevitably, the way globalization works, all of Christendom–from North America to Eastern Europe to Australia–will be celebrating Christmas the way Americans celebrate it. I’m not warping reality by saying this. Go to Yahoo News and type “Santa Claus” on its images; you’ll see the Coca-Cola guy’s suit being worn in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in Indonesia, in Australia, everywhere. Of course, many people might consider that sad; the spiritual and the local are being replaced by the commercial and the American. But since I’m American and NOT a Christian, I see nothing wrong with that! To paraphrase V.S. Naipaul, most of the world is poor; therefore, it needs MORE materialism, not less. And the American-styled Christmas is a great way to bring about this materialism.

  13. Da Xiangchang,

    There’s something you’re forgetting. Please refer to the top of the comment box:

    “This is not your personal soapbox.”

  14. First I would like thank you for your good work. Your blog is one of the best blogs about China and I really enjoy reading it.

    I don’t you should blame your friends for the bad arrangements for the Christmas eve activities. Your friends don’t see the spriritual side of Christmas holiday because Christinity has not been very much part of Chinese culture. They treated Christmas as holiday of pure merry making and they invited you to some fun activities so you would felt lonely and homesick during holiday.

    If you can rejected your boss’s requirement for one hour’s work on Christmas day, you surely didn’t need to follow your friend passively to the bar on the Christmas eve. Maybe next time you can suggested to your friends about what you prefer to do during Christmas. Explain what Christmas means to you, especially to your girl friend. You can suggest some more quiet and spriritual ways to celebrate the holiday. Your friends may like that and find that is more rewarding.

    A Chinese reader

  15. Reader,

    Thanks for your comments.

    My intent was not to blame my friends for taking me to the wrong place on Christmas Eve or to blame Chinese people for “screwing up Christmas.” I was merely attempting to describe the emotional effects spending Christmas in Shanghai has had on me this year. The feelings involved can be confused and conflicting, and as such suggest no clear course of action. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do — I kind of wanted Christmas to go away so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I ended up doing something like what you suggested, though.

  16. It’s not so much the conflict between a religious Christmas (lapsed or pious) and a
    secular Christmas; this exists quite happily in the US despite periodic hysteria over “losing the true meaning”.

    It’s more the discomfort of celebrating a traditional holiday in a way that is divorced from traditions (both religious and secular) that are central to it. That’s part of the reason why going to church is comforting, even for people who don’t regularly attend – it’s familiar, especially when a major part of Christmas for the vast majority of people – reunion – is absent. The Santa hats, the music, the trees and lights are all trappings of Christmas, but it all adds up to a shell around a basic excuse to party.

    Suppose the Mid-Autumn festival became really big in the States, and people celebrated by eating marzipan-covered cream-puffs with cherry cordial centers, giving each other gifts of really expensive alcohol, and reading the Metaphysical Poets before hitting the bar circuit. Would this be any different?

    Growing up, Christmas in my family was mostly spent on the road since traffic was so light. The whole tree/presents/celebration thing was moved alternately to St. Nick’s day or Ephiphany so we could visit relatives over the break. This led to such disasters as getting stuck in a cheap interstate motel waiting for the car-repair shops to re-open on the 26th. But even then we were able to sing carols and watch bad 70s remakes of classic Christmas movies on the basic cable.

    Oh, and DXc: It helps if your soapbox doesn’t splinter and fall apart so easily.

  17. At the risk of being repetitive, DXC, you are one scary guy 😉 But honest at least.

    I really related to John’s call about not working on Christmas just because its Christmas. Just because. So there. I love that. We should do that more, and not just in China.

    I think your Christmas sounds more Christmassy than some of the recent ones I’ve celebrated at home, where its become very materialistic and stressful. I love the idea of Christmas being a simple celebration of friends/family etc (with wine and food). I love having Christmas with Chinese Christians for that reason — they’ve got the meaning of Christmas without the capitalism (although I haven’t been to a Chinese mass or anything on Christmas).

  18. john, we missed you and grace bunches! (still do)
    i think part of what is important about Christmas — and why it didn’t feel right to you in china — is TRADITION (which applies to any/all holidays — even ones invented within families). the chinese are copying the “trappings” (as someone said earlier), but there is no meaning behind those actions, so it’s not tradition. it’s tradition that makes it comfortable, and why it doesn’t feel right if it’s not spent w/ loved ones (who practices traditions w/ strangers?! the very definition of tradition precludes that possibility).
    so it sounds like, in lieu of family traditions, you are creating some of your own. way to go!

    (did you hear how we had to alter one of our traditions this year? funny to our family, but prob’ly not anyone else.)

  19. I don’t see anything wrong with going out and partying on christmas, at least they are celebrating instead of just staying inside and reciting cheng yu’s or whatever chinese people do on a normal saturday.

    And… Carl has a chinese friend?

    A chinese lady friend?

    sounds like a merry christmas to me…

  20. I don’t see anything wrong with going out and partying on christmas

    There’s nothing wrong with this, but you will have to deal with the crowds, high prices and other unpleasant things that John left out of his post. When I mentioned to Shanghai friends that I would be spending Christmas with friends in their own homes, they were very surprised.

    But I had a great time. Eat poop, you cat!

  21. Unless Raymond has bumps that I have yet to notice, alas the Chinese friend was a guy. We did continue on to the Rojam however where there was females galore.

  22. i happen to read two articles about christmas, here are the links:,,1072-1413358,00.html

  23. Da Xiangchang Says: December 31, 2004 at 2:46 am

    I don’t remember much from my Christmases spent in China, but I do remember that a McDonald’s girl was dressed up as Mrs. Claus at the McDonald’s by Wujiaochang. Actually, she was wearing an abbreviated Mrs. Claus suit–she had the red hat but her outfit was sleeveless so her bare arms stuck out slender and sexy. I shall carry that image to the grave.

    Christmas in California is funny. The idea of “traditional Christmas” goes right out the window. Christmas Eve, I went to a steakhouse with my mom, and was surprised it was packed with people! Shouldn’t they be at home with a home-cooked meal? Then we went to a movie–the excellent “Sideways”–and the theater was packed with people too!!! What the hell?! This was, after all, Christmas Eve! I mean, my mom and I are irreligious Chinese so we can be excused, but everybody else there was pink. They couldn’t ALL be Jews, could they? Christmas Day, my dad and I went to see “Kinsey” (yes, my family’s movie-obsessed), and again, the movie theater was packed with pink people; it’s sort of funny to be watching a movie about a perverted sex researcher on Christmas but there you go. Then Christmas night, Dad and I went to a Chinese restaurant, and again, it was like 50% pink people! Of course, some of them must’ve been Jews, but surely, not all of them! So it’s funny to see that for a lot of Americans, they celebrate Christmas exactly the same way the Chinese do!

  24. John,

    I will agree with you that there is something definitely unsettling about Christmas in China. Last year I had a good discussion with one of my freshman classes about why they even celebrate Christmas, what it means to them…and none of them had any idea.

    I asked them if it would be strange if Western societies started celebrating Spring Festival for no particular reason (and I’m not talking about Chinatowns and dancing dragons); if we, let’s say in Canada, went through all the Spring Festival motions, without a clue what they meant, simply because they were “fun”.

    They thought that would be absolutely ridiculous, but still got visibly agitated when I tried to compare that to Christmas in China. I guess Christmas is “the modern thing to do”, and modernity=good. End of discussion.A whole other story is when I asked them to explain to me what “modern” meant to them, but since this is not my soapbox I will refrain from telling it.Chase away those nasty traditions! 🙂

    Christmas really is about relaxing, seeing family and eating way too much.

  25. One funny misunderstanding I’ve run across several times this year is that you’re supposed to stay up until midnight on Christmas Eve. Why do people think this? They explain it to me like this: they heard that Christmas is the western Spring Festival (reasonable, you get together with your family and eat traditional foods), and the Spring Festival being the start of the New Year means that you stay up until midnight. So therefore they extrapolate that on Christmas Eve you must stay up until midnight. Hmm…

  26. Oh and not to start an argument, but…

    Christmas really is about relaxing, seeing family and eating way too much.

    Not it’s not. It’s about remembering the coming of the Messiah. At least that’s what it was all about until (as my church back in Michigan likes to call them) pre-Christians started going “through all the [Christmas] motions”. Sort of strange, isn’t it?

  27. Micah,

    Well, obviously Christmas is supposed to have religious meaning. I guess I should have said that, for me, Christmas is about those things…I still go to church given that my mother is pretty religious and pulls good guilt trips, but as a non-practicing Catholic I would be lying if I said it held special religious significance to me (but that doesn’t mean I find the crass commercialism surrounding the holiday any less repulsive).

    I do think the relaxing and seeing family part can tie into the spiritual side, though: pause, reflect on life, cherish your loved ones, be thankful for life. 🙂

    I was just agreeing with John: whether celebrating the birth of Christ or not, Christmas tradition as I have experienced it is much more about family and quiet time than getting shitfaced at bars. I guess I should have just been a bit more clear.

  28. I am from Singapore, a tropical island-nation in SE Asia that does not belong to Malaysia or China, unlike what many Western foreigners think. I empathize with what you mean. We get that kind of commercialized Christmas every year in Singapore as well, what with all the light bulbs creeping over all the malls like poison ivy, complete with fake “snowflakes” and throngs of people shopping. In addition, working on Christmas is like asking us Chinese to work on the 1st few days of Chinese New Year. A cultural taboo.

  29. One year later and Xmas is coming up once again. I m also an American abroad, but in France. Still,while it is a Catholic country and so has Xmas traditions, there are certain things I miss, like caroling. How much fun I had as a kid strolling down the street with friends, caroling away.
    I’m nt even Christian, but there is something about Xmas songs that get to me!
    Which brings me to how I came upon this post. I’ve been looking for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in Mandarin Chinese. Now, don’t be sceptic! It exists! I learned it soooo many years ago but have since drifted to the French culture in which I find myself living, although my heart still holds a special place for the Chinese language and cullture (food aside LOL)

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