Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Two (Western) Holidays in One

By Beth Green

It’s holiday season again.

My relatives and friends in the U.S. have already started groaning about the incessant drone of shopping-mall carols, the thought of making lists and checking them twice, and the old rant that Christmas comes earlier every year. It makes a nice change, Facebook-reading-wise, from all the election posts, but mostly it draws my attention to the way the end-of-year holidays are celebrated differently all over the world, and the way facets of American culture have been adopted in Asia.

A Christmas tree vies for attention with one of the old towers of Xi'an

This year, in the Philippines, I’m looking forward to seeing how this overwhelmingly Christian country celebrates Jesus’ birth. The Christ figure is revered here, and Christmas carols started up, right on time, in late September.

But I’ll never forget how the decidedly not-Christian country of China has unofficially adopted the spirit of two western holidays—Halloween and Christmas—and turned them into one big mash-up of fun and partying at the end of December. 

The first year I spent in China, 2006, my partner and I took advantage of the long Christmas weekend given to the foreign English teachers at the school we were working in and flew up to Xi’an with some friends. Xi’an is the home of the Terracotta Warriors, one of the must-see sites in Asia. I was thrilled that we were going to see this historic place, and while a little bit homesick as always over the last two weeks of December, I didn’t mind skipping the holiday that year.

Larger-than-life Santas for sale on the sidewalk in Xi'an.

So I was truly surprised to find Xi’an all dressed up for a party. A huge Christmas tree, lights everywhere (well, Chinese cities usually have lights everywhere, but this was more than normal) and yes—even in the city that started the Silk Road—Christmas carols. 

We toured the Warriors in the daytime, and then in the evening headed over to the Muslim Quarter (one of Xi’an’s ancient districts) to have dinner. The fun of eating Muslim fare on Christmas in China was not lost on us. On the way, we met throngs of people out for a stroll. 

Sidewalks in China can get crowded, and what with one-point-however-many-billion people you see why, but these groups of people were mobbing the pavement. Vendors selling balloons and pinwheels (which are often bought in China on holidays as they’re believed to blow luck to you) did roaring business. Groups of girls wearing glowing devil’s horns over bright orange clown’s wigs tried to take sneaky pictures with us foreigners. Small children carried water-filled bags of tiny goldfish their parents had bought them—it wasn’t Christmas, it was a Halloween Carnival!

Twelve months later I looked forward to the spectacle, and thought I was prepared for it. To research a potential new job, my partner and I flew to another city over Christmas. We made sure we brought our cameras, even though it was primarily a business trip, and asked at the hotel for the best way to get downtown. This year, we decided, we wanted to photograph the action. 

A "snow" fight in Guiyang.

However, if we thought the broad avenues of Xi’an were flooded with people, we hadn’t anticipated what the narrow city streets of Guiyang, Guizhou province, would feel like when everyone was in good-time mode. 

Guizhou province is poor, and a lot of people from there go find work in the more prosperous east. The people who stay behind work hard for small wages. And apparently, love a chance to party. In Xi’an by comparison, our experience had been kind of sedate: groups of people walking, snapping photos and snacking. In Guiyang, bands of young men were ‘attacking’ gangs of young women with cans of silly string.  The laughing women would retaliate with aerosol cans of colored fake snow—the kind you use to frost and decorate windows in holiday season. By the end of a couple of hours on the street, you could spot the married men—they were the ones the girls had left out of the snow-fight.

Devil's horns on Christmas? Why not?

My favorite sight that night was a trio of girls, winter jackets and blue jeans completely covered in wads of silly string and blasts of fake snow, holding roses some boys had given them. They were writing words on the sidewalk in silly string, and then lighting the messages on fire. They had a hard time getting space on the sidewalk to do this, but once they announced their intention, they got plenty of area protected by the crowd of onlookers, myself included. To my English-teaching delight, they mostly wrote English words, “hello!” burned brightly, and then “I love you.”

I can’t remember now if anyone wrote, “Merry Christmas,” but the holiday was celebrated, all the same.

[Note: Read more about Beth’s trip to Xian  here , the trip to Guiyang here  ]


  1. devil horns on Christmas... why not, indeed.. i wanna try that silly-string-fire-thing now =]

  2. James! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I'd like to inform you though, that Novel Adventurers takes no responsibility for any injury incurred to you if you do try to set silly string on fire. It works in China, but who knows what would happen in Texas? :)

  3. Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.................Rajasthan Tour Packages & Kerala Tour Packages