“He’s checking his list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice…..”
Sing it with me!
“….Santa Claus is coming to tooooown!!”
No pretending you don’t know this one ladies and gents!
It’s one of those traditional, well known and much loved songs you hear ringing out across the radio, TV and in shopping centres and schools at this time of year, every. single. year. Without fail.
But whether or not Santa Claus is coming to this town? Well…..if he is, it will probably be a quick visit!Here in the middle of China, they’re a little late to the party.
With less than three per cent of China’s enormous population Christian, not everyone is as familiar with the likes of “Santa dashing through the snow” or “a partridge in a pear tree!”
It’s only more recently that many Chinese are becoming familiar with the yuletide tradition. A growing number of young people appear eager to embrace western ideals (or perhaps it’s just any excuse for a celebration)!
In the bigger cities of China like Beijing and Shanghai where large international communities reside, there’s no doubt the level of Christmas cheer is elevated a peg or two.
But what happens here in Xi’an where foreigners are few and far between? Does the birthplace of civilization get into the Christmas spirit? It’s safe to say, for the most part, it’s business as usual!
There are no Christmas lights strung up across the neighbourhood (to be fair, I think Xi’an has enough lights of its own going on anyway). No one’s packing a picnic and trooping to Carols by candlelight in the domain or down on the beach. Advent calendars being prised open by sticky fingers are few and far between and you might need to think twice before leaving milk and cookies out for Santa. As for kissing under the mistletoe, well that’s just not going to happen.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m happy to report, there are touches of the silly season here and there in this ancient Chinese metropolis….you just have to look!
Christmas trees are proudly dotted around the city (although just quietly I did have to have words with my hairdresser about his tree decorating skills or lack there of. To his credit, he agreed his half dressed US$5 tree from Taobao was a little on the lean side, but hey, it was accompanied by a life-sized Santa!
The more western-style cafes like Starbucks amp up the Rudolph volume with a few Christmas wreathes and baubles on display. And as I write this article, Harry Connick Junior’s “When My Heart Finds Christmas” is bellowing out across the cafe in a sign all is not lost when it comes to the big man in red.
For most though, it’s just another week day. Meetings are scheduled, conferences held and lecture rooms full. There’s no official holiday on the cards, so If you’re a foreigner working here, you’ll probably need to take a day off (or throw a sickie) if you want to immerse yourself in a diet of rumballs, Christmas mince pies and egg nog on a week day.
International schools though are out, so it’s fair to say the expat kids will be more than ready for some reindeer action!
While Christmas Day itself lacks any real significance, Christmas Eve is where it’s at.
Locals take this festive opportunity to get out and about with friends, spreading a bit of revelry. It’s become tradition to close off the centre of the city where the famous Bell Tower stands and I’m told locals love to spruce themselves up with flashing reindeer antlers and brightly coloured baubles (as you do) to frolic in the carnival-like atmosphere.
Many of the hotels (and I just happen to know one) capitalize on the season to be jolly, with restaurants and bars putting on special packages. You might even see Santa floating around with an elf or two at his side.
So, while it’s not quite up to the standard of Hong Kong’s version of decking the halls here in Xi’an, the ginormous sparkling Christmas trees and intricately-made life-size gingerbread houses (real gingerbread) in many hotels will definitely put that Christmas spring in your step!
Personally, finding a Christmas tree in town is no mean feat – (unless you’re in the know)! Thankfully a little birdy pointed us in the direction of a giant marketplace. Battling manic, bumper to bumper traffic one Sunday afternoon, we eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of town at a mammoth market shopping centre to rival the likes of London’s Heathrow Airport.
The top floor was like walking into Santa’s grotto (in a slightly more ramshackle fashion). Giant (fake) Christmas trees as far as the eye can see, strings of xmas lights, glittery gold reindeer and enough sparkly tinsel to wrap around a small forest. We barely made it out before closing, the excitement of baubles and bells all a bit much for these eager expats.
I’ve also spied a few small but distinct ‘Christmas’ sections in some of the bigger department stores like Walmart, boasting a few rather unfortunate Santa hats, tinsel and a couple of cardboard Santas. And that I’m afraid is where the festive paraphernalia ends.
Christmas cards and wrapping paper are a little on the lean side too. Regrettably I haven’t sent a single Christmas card (sorry Nana)! I’m hoping the fact they are thin on the ground and I am yet to locate a ‘post office’ will pass as an acceptable excuse?
Carving out a Christmas feast in China is proving just as tricky, but we have managed to snare ourselves a turkey with stuffing (it might be accompanied by noodles and fried rice, but nonetheless we have turkey!!) It’s a pretty sure bet, Christmas mince pies, rum balls and egg nog won’t be on the table (but we can always raid the gingerbread house downstairs).
There’s no denying our first Christmas in Xi’an will be an experience. With family and friends from afar it’s shaping up to be a cracker… and with temps in the minus figures, I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed for a white Christmas!!
Now that would be one to remember!
So with that in mind, from North West China, I bid you all Sheng Dan Kuai Le!
Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before stepping outside the box (literally) and making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband. Four years into the mad but momentous journey of chopsticks and chicken's feet, she is mum to hyped up blondie, Ava and has just embarked on the next expat posting in Xi'an, China.
When she's not juggling play dough and princess outfits, Nicole works as a freelance journalist, copywriter, presenter, media trainer and Master of Ceremonies across Asia.