Merry fifth day of Christmas, everyone. I still have a lot of Christmas coverage left in my email inbox, and I hope to get to some of it in the midst of my travels. One of the most interesting stories of the pre-Christmas coverage was a Beijing-datelined feature by Edward Cody in The Washington Post. The heart of this story focuses on a question raised by some elite gradate students in China, but it is a question that is just as newsworthy in almost any North American context, as well.
So, is Christmas a Christian holiday or not? And, even it it is not a Christian holiday, does celebrating the holiday at all chain people to Western values and commercialism?
From a pure Chinese perspective, it's six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Here's a major chunk of the story:
The students, from such elite institutions as Tsinghua, Peking and People's universities, wrote a weighty-sounding open letter complaining that Christmas is a Christian holiday imported from the West and suggesting that Chinese should stick to the traditions and festivals observed in their own culture.
"We 10 doctoral students from different universities and research institutes solemnly call on our countrymen to be cautious about Christmas, to wake from their collective cultural coma and give Chinese culture the dominant role," they wrote in a letter posted ... on the government-controlled China Daily Web site.
In some ways, the students' sentiments harked back to former policies of China's Communist Party, when foreigners were regarded with suspicion and Chinese who fraternized with them were warned of the dangers of "spiritual pollution." But more broadly, the students took issue with the pervasive influence of Western culture since China opened to the world 25 years ago. They also resent the willingness of many Chinese to embrace foreign goods and fashions as superior to their own.
Thus, the students proposed boycotting Christmas -- as a blow against the modern Western invasion of their culture via mass media, commercialism, etc. Instead, they suggested that Chinese citizens focus on old-fashioned values, such as Buddhism, Daoism and mainstream Confucian philosophy.
And all the people said, "Amen"?
Not quite. When the letter was posted, thousands of writers weighed in to say that Christmas is harmless fun -- nothing more. Think of this as a pre-Olympics form of cultural exchange on a mass scale.
However, note again that the key issue is culture, not faith.
He Liangliang, a well-known commentator on the Hong Kong-based Phoenix television station, said it is "absurd" to suggest that China's 5,000-year-old culture is suffering under Western attack. "As a matter of fact, Chinese culture has developed a lot while embracing other cultures," he said. "It is not necessary to boycott Western culture. You just can't."
Others, however, agreed with the students, lamenting a fashion that they said tends to play down the value of China's own traditions in favor of Western-style commercialism. "I will applaud those doctoral students who advocate boycotting Christmas this Christmas season," said Yin Jianguang, an editorial writer at Huashang newspaper in the central province of Shaanxi. "Chinese people don't understand Christmas, yet they celebrate Christmas. I think the reason is that they worship foreign things and fawn on foreign powers."
And what about the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
By the end of the story we are told that the 800 seats at the St. Joseph's Catholic Cathedral midnight Mass will be full -- researved seating, in fact. You have to laugh (to keep from crying) at the marvelous details that the Mass has become a hot ticket "for worshipers, but also for college students who regard it as a trendy date."
Like I said, the big question raised by the story is this: Is Christmas Christian, in the modern Western context? That's a great question in Beijing, London, New York, Los Angeles and lots of other places. This story is a must read.