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Eight fascinating facts about Christmas in China

Performers dressed as Santa Claus play traditional Chinese instruments as part of a Christmas celebration in Xian. (China Photos -- Getty Images)

I once took a friend, about to return home to China after several years in the United States, on what I thought would be a uniquely American tour of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. We stopped in, on her request, at one of the specialized stores that sells only Christmas-related knickknacks. As she poked through the Santa ornaments and engraved placards, I asked her what Christmas was like in China. She sighed, inspecting a porcelain Frosty the Snowman. "It's too commercial."

Christmas, long banned in China along with Christianity itself, is a fascinating Chinese contradiction: a booming business and ultra-popular holiday in the world's leading Communist and officially non-religious state. The Christmas tradition is quite young there, but just like so many foreign customs that China has for centuries absorbed and made its own, the holiday has already developed its own Chinese characteristics. They are revealing, fascinating, and at points quite baffling – for an outsider like myself, anyway. Here are just a few.

1. Christmas is treated more like Saint Patrick's Day or Valentine's Day. That is, it's a lighthearted day for going out and being with friends, not for staying in with family, as we do in the West. Typical ways to celebrate include seeing a movie, going to a karaoke bar, or shopping. China Daily says Christmas Eve is the biggest shopping day of the year. Young couples often treat it as a romantic day. Ice skating and amusement parks are popular destinations.

2. Chinese Christians still face restrictions against a Western-style holiday. As huge numbers of urban Chinese celebrate a commercialized and religiously sterilized version of Christmas, the country's 68 million Christians (about 5 percent of the population) have a tougher time. Religious practice is tightly regulated by the government, with acts such as caroling variously forbidden or allowed. It's better than it used to be; informal "house churches" are officially forbidden but typically tolerated. When the government began allowing the more commercialized version of Christmas to prosper starting in the 1990s, it had the effect, deliberate or not, of overshadowing the Western-style version, reducing the holiday's religious connotations. In a way, the more popular Christmas gets in China, the less Christian it becomes.

3. There is a "war on Christmas" in China. Some nationalist critics have accused the West of using the holiday as a tool of foreign imperialism. This is from Chinese journalist Helen Gao's great article on Christmas's evolution in China:

While some in America fight to resurface the holiday's spiritual significance, Christmas-bashers in China warn against allowing Western culture to contaminate Chinese civilization. Shortly before Christmas in 2006, ten post-doctoral students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, and other elite colleges penned an open letter asking Chinese people to boycott Christmas and resist the invasion of "western soft power." They warned, "[Christmas celebrators in China] are doing what western missionaries dreamed to do but didn't succeed in doing 100 years ago." The letter added, "Chinese people need to treat Christmas cautiously, and support the dominance of our own culture."

4. Fancy, cellophane-wrapped 'Christmas apples' are a common gift. This is because the word "apple" apparently sounds like "Christmas eve" in Mandarin. The apples might bear fancy wrapping and be printed with holiday messages, such as this apple bearing Santa Claus's likeness and the words "Merry X-Mas."

5. Jesus who? It's all about Santa (and his "sisters"). Americans are familiar with the shopping mall practice of having young workers, typically women, dress up as Santa's "helper elves." In China, the fact that these costumed women are supposed to be elves is apparently lost in translation sometimes, with the women simply known as Santa's friends or "sisters." And Santas often travel in packs. Here's a delegation at a mall in the city of Wuhan:

6. In China, Santa Claus is often shown playing the saxophone. The holiday's mascot is well-known, although for some reason he is portrayed, with startling frequency, as jamming out on a sax, Bill Clinton-style. Sometimes he is playing a trumpet or French horn. I have tried and failed to find the roots of this tradition; please chime in with a comment if you have any insights. Here's a representative image from Beijing:

7. Chinese state media now brags that China makes American Christmas possible. That's right: not so long after the Chinese government persecuted Christians, sometimes violently, its largest media outlet is boasting that Christmas would not be possible without China. The state-run People's Daily on Monday announces, "American fellows, it is Christmas time, a time to wake up, have a strong cup of coffee, and see what gifts a Chinese Santa Claus really delivers." The article argues that the West could not celebrate Christmas without China's exports and that we should spend the holiday expressing gratitude for Chinese manufacturing. The article concludes, "This Christmas morning, when you wake up and smell this couple of coffee, accept your gifts with gratitude."

8. A 19th century Chinese Christian leader claimed to be Jesus's brother, then started a civil war. A man named Hong Xiuquan, born in 1814 as missionaries were spreading Christianity in China, had visions that led him to believe that he was the second son of God, who had commanded him to ride China of sacrilegious practices. Hong formed a movement called the Heavenly Kingdom, which rose up and came to control vast swathes of southern China. The civil war of 1850 to 1864, also known as the Taiping Rebellion, ultimately killed perhaps 20 million people, or approximately as many people as World War One. I don't want to suggest that this justifies China's treatment of Christians today, but perhaps it can give you a sense for why the religion can make the government so skittish.