By Stella Feng. Illustration by Tianyi Sun, @thoraxco
Before the Christmas break, I overheard a conversation between an LCA faculty member and some international students about whether Chinese people, Chinese LCA international students in particular, should celebrate Christmas. The argument was that, since most Asians are not Christians, Christmas is just an excuse that businessmen use to sell things. Also, since American people don’t even celebrate lunar new year, people from Asian countries have no reason to celebrate a holiday that doesn’t even belong to them. Why should Asian people or non-Christian people in the world celebrate Christmas? Well, I would like to extend these questions more broadly before I attempt to answer them: why do we even celebrate holidays?
This year was my third Christmas in the States. As time has gone by, I gradually found myself enjoying this holiday more and more each year. I treasure moments when the lights on the trees start to glow in the dark; when the entire school starts to be decorated with bright red, white, green, and gold; when people start to dress up in their light-up sweaters; when Christmas songs are played and sung loudly in the hallways. All these moments bring me great hope and relaxation, and, in some magical way, they canceled out heavy academic pressures. Being alone and abroad in the freezing winter of Boston, Christmas embraces me with warmth and joy that I have only experienced with my family. It is such a happy and beautiful holiday to enjoy.
Christmas is not usually a widely celebrated holiday in most Asian countries; however, in recent years, more and more young people in Asian countries are starting to treat it as important as many traditional eastern festivals. Local traditions have even started to develop; Chinese people give each other apples on Christmas eve since the word “apple” a homograph of the word “peace” in Chinese — something that couldn’t be weirder from Western Christian perspectives. Many people plant trees in northern India, which is the opposite of the US where people cut trees and display them indoors. The Philippines starts to count down to Christmas in early September and decorate the island with lanterns; they have the longest celebration in the entire world, which lasts until January of the next year. Many Japanese people choose to have KFC and sponge cake on Christmas Eve thanks to a successful 70s advertisement, and the holiday is considered rather significant even though less than one percent of the population of the country is Christian. Christmas arguably has become a new tradition among young people in Asia.
A “traditional holiday” is not an easy phrase to define in the first place. Many holidays in Asian countries started off as foreign and religious celebrations and ended up as localized and secularized traditions. The Laba festival in China was originally an imported Buddhist holiday; it celebrates the enlightenment of Buddha. However, people rarely treat it this way; instead, they celebrate the new harvest and enjoy it mostly as non-Buddhist with many activities that strict Buddhist should avoid: consuming garlic. Its original meaning was almost forgotten.
It is not only in Asian countries that people celebrate holidays outside of their “traditional ones;” many countries in the western hemisphere value foreign holidays as well. Many non-Irish Americans find themselves enjoying Saint Patrick’s Day. Cinco de Mayo in the US has taken on a significance beyond that in Mexico, and people treat it as a celebration of Mexican-American culture instead of military victory. Non-Christians give their loved ones chocolates on Valentine’s day — a holiday with dark origins but which is now associated with roses and Cupid. Many American people have started to care about the date of the Chinese New Year and the zodiac of the year. With the trend of globalization, the boundary between “what holiday should I celebrate?” and “what holiday do I want to celebrate?” starts to blend. People are attracted by the aesthetic pleasure and vitality of the holidays regardless.
To view it anthropologically, many cultures in the world have major holidays in late winter. Firstly, it is because winter is the end of one year and the start of another, and secondly, winter in the old days was long and frosty, so people wish to find a way to enjoy themselves. It is a utopia that human beings construct where everyone can be together and celebrate their loved ones.
Why do we celebrate Christmas or other holidays that do not belong to us? At the coldest time of the year, people seek reasons to love each other, to talk to each other, and to care about each other. Some people, especially the ones who genuinely hate holidays, detest the meaningless ritualized celebrations and consider them as unnecessary. However, we have to always keep in mind that sometimes it is the seemingly pointless gatherings that are key to creating warm holiday feelings. People want to have a reason to have a lively and cozy ambiance. There are already so many miserable things happening in the world. We all need a time set aside to encourage us to be happy and nice without expectation of reward; the holidays are a time we can do this together.
This article might sound like the holiday of Christmas is deviating from its original meaning: celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. As students in a Christian school, what Christmas is actually for should be something that we always keep in mind. However, I would like to argue that Jesus himself probably would be pleased when he sees his birthday bringing many non-believers happiness. The cultural meaning behind Christmas is also significant and cannot be ignored in the face of the religious meaning. Also, by enjoying this holiday, many non-Christian people may start to care more about the true meaning behind Christmas and possibly return to it.
Just like Christmas is a major holiday for Western society, many Asian countries celebrate the Lunar New Year as the most important festival of the year. This year it falls on February the fifth, and the zodiac is pig.We light up lanterns and decorate the world with the brightest red and gold. I wish to see more and more non-Asian people start to become interested in and get to know this holiday. It is warm, beautiful, and meant to bring loved ones together. And this warmth, beauty, and community is something that people from all cultures can share with one another, regardless of the holiday we are celebrating.