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23 December 2016

The celebration of Christmas is growing in popularity, with commerce and globalisation, not just goodwill, as dual driving forces behind it, Philip Hancock writes.

It is now widely acknowledged that Christmas has become a global festival. While often coloured by local customs and interpretations, it is an event celebrated across every continent and in almost every country around the world. While, in part, this can be accounted for by the legacy of Western colonialism and the presence of a converted Christian population, the isomorphic pressures exerted by a global economic system also play a significant role.

Across the Asia-Pacific region, one would certainly be hard pressed not to notice what time of year it is. Homes, shopping centres and public buildings are increasingly adorned by Christmas lights, decorations and even, in some instances, artificial snow and ice in an attempt to recreate an idealised northern mid-winter scene. At the same time, Santa Claus, or at least something approximating the festive gift giver, has become a ubiquitous figure on posters, television advertisements, in the shops and on the streets.

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Not that any of this should be overly surprising. Despite its Christian veneer, the Christmas most of us experience has its origins in the world of Victorian entrepreneurship and commerce when the season of goodwill quickly became the season of shopping. Today, each Christmas is an event that is 12 months in the making, as production schedules are devised, store buyers’ itineraries are finalised and festive displays are designed and built.

As I have already intimated, however, across the Asia-Pacific economies Christmas can still mean slightly different things. In Australia and New Zealand, the day closely follows Anglo-American traditions despite the summer setting. In Japan, while not a public holiday, Christmas is now well established as an occasion when young people spend time with, and indeed money on, those with whom they have a romantic attachment. Similarly, in China, Christmas is also considered something of a festival for the young while, at the same time, attracting high levels of spending on a myriad of consumer goods as gifts. There is even a Santa Claus theme park opening in the city of Chengdu, based on the one found in the Finnish city of Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus.

Of course, to consume necessitates that first we produce, and nowhere is the production of Christmas goods more important than in the manufacturing centres of say Vietnam and China, among others. The Chinese city of Yiwu is perhaps most famous as the ‘Christmas village’, producing around 60 per cent of the world’s seasonal decorations. And despite a recent decline in exports to the traditional markets of the US and Europe, most likely a consequence of the economics of austerity that have dominated the last decade, they remain highly important outlets. Over 2016 the US alone has imported around $1.1 billion worth of Christmas tree decorations and $346 million worth of Christmas tree lights from China – around 90 per cent of the total imports of these festive items. Add to this the volume of consumer goods leaving the region for the shops and malls of the US and Europe at Christmas, and it is perhaps no surprise that it has been suggested that when Americans wake up on Christmas morning it is China, not Santa Claus, they should be thanking for their Christmas gifts.

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Notwithstanding the bright lights and jollity associated with this time of year, Christmas in the region has its dark side. For many, it is considered part and parcel of a continuing process of cultural imperialism, whereby non-indigenous values and practices are increasingly imposed via the importation of western brands and imagery, progressively subsuming local customs and traditional celebrations.

At the same time, much has been made of the working conditions of those who manufacture the trinkets and distractions of Christmas – for both western and increasingly important domestic markets. Stories of underage workers, low wages and unsafe and hazardous working conditions are rife, while the impact of consuming vast quantities of disposable plastic goods, along with the global supply chains they necessitate, cast an environmental shadow over the hopes for a white Christmas of those lucky enough to experience one.

Yet despite this, and whatever one’s faith or views on Christmas, it is a celebration that is only likely to grow in popularity. Nor is Christmas likely to stay the same. Like a giant snowball, it picks up customs and practices from around the world as it rolls from country to country. As once Roman, then German, Scandinavian and British traditions intermingled with ideas from the Americas only to be spread with Empire, both political and economic, so today new ways of thinking about and doing Christmas are emerging in China, Japan, Singapore and many other countries. These are ideas and practices that will themselves eventually play their part in defining the character of the global Christmas, which itself will no doubt reflect the quality of the relationships between not only people but nations and regions. It would be nice to think that these will be relationships built on the ideals of peace and goodwill to all and, if they are, perhaps we might have something to thank Christmas for after all.

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Hancock, Philip. 2017. "Christmas In The Asia-Pacific Region - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.