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John Abbot is co-owner of Married to a lovely Chinese Lady and living in China, John knows and respects China, Chinese Women, Chinese People and Chinese Culture. His blog will include good stuff about Online Dating, Chinese Women, International Relationships and Things Chinese. Join John Abbot on Google+
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The Spirit of Christmas Past in China    

By John Abbot
4030 Views | 13 Comments | 12/24/2013 4:19:02 PM

This is true of an Irishman, but can it also apply to a Chinese man?

I just received a Skype message today from my good friend, and fellow CLM blogger, Justin Mitchell, in which he reminded me of our earlier times together in Shenzhen, China. Justin had posted a blog in his own blogs (not on CLM) back at the time, being 2003, in which he wrote about a night spent partly in the bar I owned back in those days.  It was a little bar called Moondance, and was pretty popular with expats in China, which also tended to draw a lot of curious Chinese who were still looking to watch foreigners in action back in those days.

And I have to say that owning that bar taught me a lot, both good and bad, about foreigners in China, about Chinese in foreign bars, and about a lot of other things that made my early years in China both an exciting adventure and an ongoing love affair with this country that is so remarkably different from my own.

Another thing it did for me was allow me to meet so many remarkable individuals, again both good and bad, that I would never have encountered but for my unique position as a bar owner in China.

One of the eye openers I got was the very different way that the Chinese celebrate Christmas than we do in Canada, and that Americans, Australians and Europeans do as well. I’ll get into that shortly, but first, here’s what Justin wrote shortly after Christmas Eve, 2003:


"Feliz Navidad

Well, there's been a Christmas tree in the lobby of the Lucky Number Apt. for about a week, white stenciled "Marry Christmass 2002" (sic) sprayed on the entrance windows and I heard Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus as well as other holiday favorites while shopping for groceries at the corner store yesterday. And by the clock here it's been Christmas for about an hour and 7 minutes. So, I guess it's officially Christmas in China.

I worked a regular shift today, got a surprise gift from Chinese reporter Jennifer who gave me a gingerbread house that almost made me cry, and then, because the paper couldn't find any other foreigners to host it, spoke at the SZ Daily English salon to all six Chinese who came to hear me talk about Christmas and read some holiday-related standards.

The rest of Shenzhen was already partying hard, though I took pains to tell my rapt listeners that in the USA, Christmas Eve and Day are not treated like Mardi Gras, New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day and Halloween rolled into one.

Striving for a condensed, literate overview I read them The Night Before Christmas, the N.Y. Sun's "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus" editorial and the account of Christ's birth from the Book of Luke as well as explaining that not everyone in the states observes Christmas, which led to explanations of pagans, Hanukkah and what I could of Ramadan. I skipped Kwanza.

The questions were pretty good - especially the guy who couldn't understand how Santa got in the Christmas mix because there's no mention of him in the Bible. And what's with the stockings? The highpoint, though, was a hand-knitted long blue scarf that a woman I'd only met once before at a salon gave me as a Christmas present. A very sweet gesture and I have to say I look bitchin' in it.

Afterwards, Communist Party Member Helen D., her roommate and I joined another staffer as well as Josette-a-wild-Australian-gal, a guy from Ghana named Barney who was dressed as Santa and swilling straight from a gin bottle and a India Indian named Sameer at my favorite bar, MoonDance.

It was an eclectic evening, to say the least. Josette and I sang along to Christmas carols being piped outside, while inside a slew of Chinese, some in Halloween masks and many with yellow and blue glow sticks writhed to trance music.

The Chinese MoonDance staff had also gone wild with the white flock spray in trying to create an ambient holiday mood. There were some demented looking snow men, Christmas wishes and what appeared to be a cock and balls painted on windows and door glass.

"I didn't catch that one," said MoonDance owner, John as we gazed at the crude phallic depiction. "But I did manage to stop one from painting a skull and crossbones on the door."

And at the behest of John's girlfriend/bar manager who'd bought a costume and dressed me as a crude, skinny Santa, complete with a beard, I wandered around the dance floor amid the pumping din and bodies shouting "Ho, ho, ho!" til I was hoarse as I tossed cheap gifts such as sock puppets and plastic hammers and more glow sticks to all the naughty and nice little Chinese boys and girls.

Then I took a break. Santa needed a cigarette and a cold Tsingtao. All in all, a memorable Christmas Eve.

And to all a good night, here, there and everywhere."


That was Justin’s first Christmas in China, and it was my first too, because I had gone home to Canada for Christmas in 2002, the first year I spent in China. But most importantly, it was my first Christmas owning Moondance.

Of course, I already knew that Christmas was not celebrated in China with the same spiritual and familial feeling that it was celebrated in Canada and other western countries, and that was hardly a surprise, since Christians in China at that time made up considerably less than 1% of the population. In fact, frankly, it came as a surprise to me that it was even acknowledged, let alone celebrated.

The first hint I got that Christmas got some play in China, albeit not something that suggested any kind of particular interest in the occasion of Christmas, was when I walked into Walmart one hot, hot summer day in Shenzhen, where I lived.

When I say hot, I mean HOT!  And HUMID!  For a guy from Canada, 40 degrees Celcius in combination with humidity approaching 100% felt like I had just stepped out of a shower while fully dressed, and like I needed to step right back into another one. During those days in Shenzhen I’m pretty sure I would sweat more walking a block than I sweat in the previous year in Canada.  I spent my summers in Shenzhen just dodging from my air conditioned home to one air conditioned shop, bar or restaurant after another.

It came as quite a surprise then, to stumble into Walmart on a hot July afternoon, feeling like I was stepping out of a steamroom, only to hear Jingle Bells playing over the sound system, and at a pretty high volume. I thought maybe somebody was playing a bad joke. But then next came Drummer Boy, and then Ave Maria, and on and on with a seemingly never-ending array of Christmas carols and hymns. At least it didn’t end during my time shopping that day, which I was stretching out as long as I could before stepping back into the torture awaiting me outside.

Still, I took it to be just a strange screwup by the person responsible for the Walmart muzak, until a few days later I went into a hair salon for a haircut, and during my time there was treated, as were all the other customers (all Chinese but for me), to a CD that was a dozen different versions of, believe it or not, Jingle Bells. I kid you not - 12 different versions of Jingle Bells. It was like Jingle Bells had just taken over every spot on China’s top 40 hits that week.

I still don’t have an explanation for a CD being made on which there are 12 versions of Jingle Bells. I can barely stand it being included in any CD of Christmas songs at all, let alone having to listen to it 12 times in a row. And BTW, the reason I know it was 12 versions of Jingle Bells is because the shop owner took great pride in showing me the CD cover. Anyway, it was something I put down to the same phrase that I have heard constantly repeated to me over the last 11 years, by both Expats and by Chinese: “Only in China!”.

But as for Christmas music generally, I have grown quite accustomed to hearing it playing in shops, stores and even bars and restaurants, throughout the year. Usually it is just the occasional Christmas tune sprinkled in solo amid all variety of other English songs, but once in a while you’ll be treated to an entire CD of Christmas songs. However, the 12 versions of Jingle Bells is something I only encountered once and hope to never have to suffer through again.

Back to the bar. At Moondance I came to realize that Christmas was not simply celebrated differently in China than in Canada, but that the two countries were polar opposites in how they approached Christmas. In Canada Christmas Eve and Christmas day are times spent pretty much exclusively with family, and for most people, these are sober times. Alcohol either doesn’t mix in at all, or at least it does so in moderation. At least where I come from the bars are not even open during that time, and if they were, there would be nobody in them.

Not so in China. Based on my experience with Moondance, and backed up by some experience partying in China since Moondance, I would have to rate Christmas as the single biggest party night in China. I mean people get down and really party on Christmas Eve. Halloween is another night when the party animals really come out and howl in China, and western New Years Eve is a big party too, but nothing I’ve seen compares with Christmas.

The party that Justin described above went on to be the second busiest night that Moondance had. The busiest was the following Christmas, which was such a wild night that my head still spins thinking about it. And Moondance was just a small bar, seating only about 100 people inside and about 200 on the patio. Some of the really big clubs in Shenzhen were jammed to the rafters during the Christmas Eve partying.

I don’t know if it is still the same, because I’ve wound down my partying days entirely, but back then nobody who went out to celebrate Christmas in Shenzhen ever left the party sober, and I’m lead to believe by others that was true across China. The majority of people, both expats and Chinese, stumbled out of Moondance on those two Christmas Eves, and several exited on their hands and knees. Still others were carried out.

And I would also say that, beyond a doubt, Chinese generally do not drink alcohol to excess nearly as frequently as we westerners do, but on Christmas Eve they more than make up for it. On that night they are maniacs who have escaped the asylum, and frankly that is something that has endeared them to me greatly. Seeing them let loose and really party down as I have seen them do at Christmas has shown me a fun loving side of Chinese that I really enjoyed getting to see.

While I am Canadian, my heritage is Irish, and one of my favourite Irish sayings is “An Irishman is never drunk so long as he can hold onto a single blade of grass and not fall off the face of the Earth!”  Well, based on my experience, on Christmas Eve in China, there are a lot of Chinese who do indeed fall off the face of the Earth, and there are quite a few foreigners, including a few Irish, who fall off it with them.

On that note, as Christmas Eve is nearly upon us when I am posting this, may you all have a fantastic Christmas in China or wherever you may be. And may those of you who are in China and are so inclined enjoy your own pending fall from the face of the Earth, and may you also recover without too much suffering tomorrow.  

A couple of blogs posted recently are interrelated, so if you enjoy one you might wish to visit the other two here:

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2013-12-24 21:31:11 by Anonymouth @Anonymouth

My Christmas this year is being spent at my parents and brother's homes.

On Christmas eve, the night before, we will go for a nice dinner at my brother's home. The kids will each get to open one gift early. My father will read "The Night .before Christmas" to my brother's kids (really to all of us) and we will eat, talk and send nice time together. Then we will set out cookies and milk for Santa. Stockings are already hung up by the fire place. Ours are decorative hand crocheted stocking made by my aunt for us all with our names and a special design. We've been using them all my life, and my aunt made them for my nieces and my brother's wife when they joined the family too.

Then on Christmas morning we will wake up and go back to my brothers house early. My nieces will be going crazy because sometime during the night when they were asleep, my brother.. I mean Santa... will have climbed down the chimney and out of the fireplace to put so so many more presents under the Christmas tree and fill everyones' stockings with gifts. Lol he will also eat the cookies and drink the milk. Usually the cookies are special ones baked and decorated by my nieces ahead of time just for Santa. Santa always leaves a little thank you note. And hes messy. He must leave crumbs around and maybe a few small pieces of cookie left on the plate!

Someone (or both nieces) will be designated "Santa" and they will go to the tree and find each person a present with their name on it and we will all take turns opening and showing each other. This takes a while.. Lol, we do a lot of gifts. This year I bought my mother very expensive lambskin slippers and soft warm merino wool socks among other things as she has cancer and i though these would be comfortable for her to wear in the hospital when she goes for her chemo. I bought my father, brother and sister in law mostly warm soft clothes and shoes since I work as a footwear designer for a huge outdoor company and can take advantage of our employee only brand sales. But I also got a few other things and cute cards.

My mother will get her first serious card ever, its talks about thank you for all the wonderful holiday memories shes made for me, but i thought it a good one since it may be our last holiday with her. I cried when i chose it. Its hard to imagine Christmas and other holidays with out her.

Choosing cards for my family at Christmas is important. They must really fit the person and situation so some take a lot of searching to get a perfect one. My fiancee said cards are considered a poor thing to give in China but in the West they mean a lot and we put much thought into them. She knows its different here though and likes getting them from me because she likes to read what I write as well as see what the message is that I found.

After presents, we eat a big breakfast together.. Spend more time playing with the kids, usually they have some new games they want to play and then in the afternoon we will generally all go see a movie together.

Oh, I forgot to mention that they all go to church for a late night mass on Christmas eve. I forget because as the only atheist in my family, I choose not to attend. But that is the only place in my family Christmas, aside from saying a prayer before eating that religion comes into our family Christmas.

We dont drink much either. Maybe wine with dinner and when my father's mother was with us we would have some serious home made egg nog, made ina real clay pot left out in the snow etc. my grandma was old school southern and an alchoholic, lol, and her eggnog was soo smooooth, but tasted almost like pure bourbon!! It was cold but it still burned going back down. Good stuff!

Christmas for us is a time when we all get together and express our love of our family by giving to each other and spending quality time together. Its about family. This year I will miss my fiancee's presence here with us so much. But I will try to have her see some of it through skype, she sent gifts for everyone and I sent things to her but even though we left two weeks for delivery, everything looks too late for the actual day. I can't wait to share this and all our other favorite holidays with her next year and maybe we can pick and choose which Chinese holidays to celebrate here too.

#2013-12-24 21:56:31 by panda2009 @panda2009

I found Justin here:伊甸园国际交友网
How is he now? had not been available, so I lost contact with this wonderful guy. I can't read his blog on facebook or twitter. So please ask him write blogs on CLM again. We all miss him.
I hope him better.

#2013-12-25 04:00:26 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

@panda2009 - Panda, thanks for your comments about Justin, who truly is a very unique and wonderful guy, with a writing talent currently going to waste. Of course, I have been encouraging Justin to write more blogs for us but he seems to just not be in a writing frame of mind.

I can't give out Justin's email address, of course, but if you want to get a message to him, I really urge you and everyone else to go to one of his blogs and post a comment on it to @justpmitch telling him how much you miss his blogs and you wish he'd get back at it.

He will get the message in his email that someone has messaged him, and when he goes to check it out he'll see who it is from and that he's missed here on the blogs. Maybe that will spark the writer in him back into action.

#2013-12-25 09:59:28 by ferlo @ferlo

@John Abbot
Nice article John, that makes me wonder how would be my time when I get to visit China.
I am also surprise how at beginning you used some Spanish, So Feliz Navidad y un Proespero Año Nuevo For you, all the CLM staff, and Bloggers. Desde el fondo de mi corazón. Fernando Lopez

#2013-12-25 12:35:40 by Barry1 @Barry1

"I would have to rate Christmas as the single biggest party night in China. I mean people get down and really party on Christmas Eve. Halloween is another night when the party animals really come out and howl in China, and western New Years Eve is a big party too, but nothing I’ve seen compares with Christmas."

lol John - I had no idea Christmas was treated like this there!

Now that I think about it, in the two trips I've had to China, I've not yet seen a drunk Chinese person.

Though I guess this reflects more on the places I visit and the people I tend to hang out with, rather than anything else.

I'm sure there must be some drunk people in China - yes?

On my next visit, maybe if I can hook up with someone like the indomitable @paulfox1 - I'll be shown a side of the country that I've never seen before. I hope so!

"The Chinese MoonDance staff had also gone wild with the white flock spray in trying to create an ambient holiday mood. There were some demented looking snow men, Christmas wishes and what appeared to be a cock and balls painted on windows and door glass."

Now surely only a Westerner would have sprayed such phallic symbols as described above. This is a favourite for graffiti artists over here after all. No self respecting Chinese would have done such a thing.

Or would they?

Hmm, if so, maybe Western society is encroaching a little too loosely onto Chinese society, in my view. Give me the old China, where respect, civility, pride and tradition reign supreme!

Merry Christmas to all. (happy)

#2013-12-25 22:17:17 by BalancedLife @BalancedLife


Thanks for posting such a wonderful article. You are a gifted writer. Your point of view and use of imagery made me feel like I was at those parties. Those experiences provided great memories...the kind of memories that accentuate a fulfilled life.

Here in the Alaska Christmas is celebrated like in Canada. Stay at home with the family, open presents and stockings, and have family time. Little or no alcohol, lots of hot chocolate, apple cider, and fudge/cookies to go around. That sort of thing. No one is out driving around or hitting the bars. All stores and restaurants are closed. If it weren't for all the Christmas lights the city would look very dark.

I spent the Christmas of 1989 in Singapore. It was the only Christmas I ever spent off US soil. Quite interesting as well. A local music band singing rock & roll songs at a venue near the docks played all night long. I remember a few locals who in between songs would should out "SING BUN JOVEE" (they meant Bonjovi). I spent time at a bar there that I can't remember the name of now, but it reminded me a bit of the Horse & Carriage in Hong Kong, which I had been in earlier that year. It was a little darker, though. Anyway, mostly British, Yanks, and other Europeans were inside. I remember seeing one alcohol-infused altercation, but beyond that it was pretty mellow. Outside, the steet lamps had seasonal decorations, and you could see lots of other Christmas-like lights and ornamentations. It almost felt like being back in the states, except everyone looked different and spoke a different language. I'm glad I was able to experience it.

#2013-12-26 14:12:53 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

@Anonymouth - Very nice comment. Great stuff for the ladies to get to read.

@ferlo - thanks ferlo, but I can't take credit for the Spanish. That was part of what Justin wrote and that I was quoting.

@BalancedLife - thanks for your kind words and and your confirmation that Christmas in Alaska is much like it is in Canada. Of course maybe that's because in both places it is too bloody cold to be out partying at night. :-)

@Barry1 - personally I think that kids will be kids and do some crazy things regardless of what culture they are from, and I wouldn't have it any other way. However, I think the employee who drew the phallic symbol on the front class had seen it in an American movie and thought it was the appropriate thing to in a Western bar leading up to the biggest party of the year, Christmas.

#2013-12-27 05:50:20 by canadianmike @canadianmike

@JohnAbbot - After a long shift in the hinterlands for work, I returned back to my hometown with less than 24 hours to "get in the spirit of Christmas". Although I did my best, stories like this help ground me a little more and open my mind to laughter and good cheer.
In my opinion, Christmas has changed slightly for the worse in first-world countries but knowing that people around the world try to celebrate it in their fashion makes me realize there is more than one way to enjoy the holiday.
Best of the holidays to everyone.

#2013-12-27 09:47:27 by justpmitch @justpmitch

@johnabbot Hey, John. Thanks for the encouragement. As you know by now I've sent sent a long overdue update that I hope will find favour (as you Canucks spell it...).

#2013-12-27 10:05:38 by justpmitch @justpmitch

@barry1 I think you're right that the company you kept during your two trips to China protected you from some simple realities. You said you never saw one drunk in your time there. You must not have attended any Chinese banquet where the baiju flows free and many attendees simply binge drink matching shots upon shots until the there are a few face plants right into their food. It's not pretty. And it is traditional.
Your surprise about the crude phallic scrawls is also a bit naïve. China has a long history of erotic literature and art as well as downright raw porn. Though most of their porn currently comes from Japan, not the west.
Bottom line, there are 1.4 billion of them now. They aren't making babies in factories or through some nostalgic spiritual juju.
For an entertaining, historic overview of this I'd recommend by a friend and former colleague of mine Richard Burger.

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