Would you be able to explain the difference between Jesus and Santa Claus, or the symbolism of different Hanukkah and Christmas foods?
These were topics of conversation as Berkshire Publishing hosted its first holiday party in China. I was in Beijing to speak at a digital publishing conference, but I also found a way to make traditional gingerbread cookies using Chinese dark sugar instead of molasses, and I took a lot of photos so I could show you Christmas, Beijing-style. There were trees encased in strings of fairy lights and dangling with plastic wands that look like shooting stars after dark. Outside our favorite restaurant was a Christmas tree draped in tinsel and made of huge cans of beer. In the business districts I saw a big gold hut with two doors, presumably set up so children could visit Santa Claus, and a hotel advertising “Golden Christmas Dinner” for December 24th. All over Beijing I saw snowmen, reindeer, and huge snowflakes and everywhere I went I had to listen to “Jingle Bells” and other holiday songs, sometimes in Cantonese.
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Christmas with Chinese characteristics, you might say.
We talk about globalization all the time, but it’s something else to see cultural “diffusion” happening before our eyes. I learned the term diffusion when Berkshire Publishing was working on the first Encyclopedia of World Sport. Diffusion in sociological parlance means the way ideas, practices, and customs percolate from culture to culture and place to place: for example, why Pakistanis and West Indians are crazy for cricket and how people in Cuba and Japan came to share a love for baseball.
I lament the spread of McDonalds and Krispy Kreme donuts, and I’m not overly happy about Christmas muzak in Beiing, but I’d rather see them enjoyed in other countries than have the American passion for semi-automatic weapons “diffuse.” It is a little puzzling that China, which has its own big winter festival coming up, would want to take on Christmas, but it is a bright, cheerful, busy sort of holiday at the darkest time of year – very re nao , in fact. And I enjoyed sharing something of our American/European tradition with friends and colleagues in Beijing. I also discovered that Chinese roasted and cracked pecans make the best Norwegian nut cookies!
Karen Christensen is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, and occasional scholar who also writes about how women gain and wield power. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a research associate of the Fairbank Center at Harvard, a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and founder of the Train Campaign. She was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Press, Read Karen’s occasional dispatches from the frontlines of international publishing at Karen's Letter on Substack, and follow her on Twitter etc @karenchristenze.