Christmas in China, with saxophones, Smurfs and steam trains

Christmas in China, with saxophones, Smurfs and steam trains

BEIJING - Christmas - once banned in China - has exploded in the atheist nation in recent years, with marketeers using everything from saxophones and Smurfs to steam trains to get shoppers to open their wallets.

Anyone walking into a shopping mall is welcomed by an orgy of festive cheer: shop windows are bedecked with plastic Christmas trees, garlands and baubles, while the strains of "Jingle Bells" fill the air.

On the streets, banners reading "Happy Christmas" adorn schools and hotels, while festive messages are splashed across adverts and the media. In many restaurants, staff wear ubiquitous Santa Claus hats topped with felt reindeer antlers.

Christmas is celebrated widely across Asia, particularly in commercial centres like Japan and Hong Kong, where it has become a major shopping holiday shorn of most religious trappings.

It has particularly gathered momentum in China since 2010, when then vice president Xi Jinping - now the country's head of state - popped into Father Christmas's cabin during a visit to Finland.

"At shopping malls, Santa has become a promotional tool for pushing Christmas sales - and Chinese like to shop," said Sara Jane Ho, founder of a finishing school popular among Beijing's wealthy.

This year she has noted the proliferation of young Father Christmases, his traditional beard and rounded belly replaced by a saxophone.

"Saxophone is seen as a very Western thing, and Santa Claus is seen as a very Western thing, so it's almost natural they go together," said Ho.

In fact in China almost anything seen as Western is used to evoke Christmas: teddy bears, the Seven Dwarves, fairground carousels or even steam trains.

Last year, a shopping mall in Shanxi province featured a giant Father Christmas, the edge of his jacket lifted as if caught by a gust of breeze in emulation of the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe.

More like Valentine's Day

This Christmas craze is mainly limited to young urbanites from the middle or upper classes.

"At my home in the country, people don't celebrate Christmas. By contrast, their children who have moved to the city celebrate it: on December 24, they meet with friends and go out to have fun," said Guo Dengxiu, a migrant from eastern Anhui province.

Many Christmas 'traditions' have been brought back by young Chinese who have studied abroad, said Ho, meaning the holiday often bears more resemblance to Valentine's day than the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

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