How many Irishmen does it take to screw in a light hulb?
Four. One to hold the bulb and three to turn the ladder!
Old English “joke”
To be perfectly honest, I had all but forgotten that Christmas was on its way. Despite what the glitzy expatriate web sites were saying, I didn’t see Christmas trees and decorations everywhere (not living in the vicinity of Beijing’s Diplomatic area, which of course is the exception). And having lived for the past decade in the Middle East (the majority in Saudi Arabia where anything remotely resembling Christmas is banned by the religious authorities) I can’t say that it is something that I particularly miss.
So I was drawn up short the other day when I walked into a supermarket to the sound of 铃儿响叮当 (What Google Translate tells me is Jingle Bells!) – that age old Christmas ditty played by a Chinese girl band. It was wonderful for me to hear a brand new take on a very old song.
There were, of course, other clues if one kept one’s eyes and ears open, such as this homage to western visitors I discovered in the Hutong area outside a coffee shop.
Amazingly, I thought, it didn’t seem to have much of an effect dragging in the tourists by their thousands. Someone obviously went to a lot of trouble to make the foreign devils feel at home, and that’s all the thanks he got!
Other clues appeared in the most unlikely places. Over the entrance to an office block near the CCTV headquarters, a group of reindeer appeared to be having an identity crisis with Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage.
And walking in the Diplomatic area, instead of the usual "You wan sexy massage yes?" shouted out by the ladies of the night, one was accosted with "You wan sexy Cleesmars massage yes?".
In the shops, lest there was any stock left after the mad Christmas rush, the storekeepers obviously had covered all their bases by being a little ambiguous with which holiday they were actually celebrating – a wise move, since the Spring Holiday (a.k.a. Chinese New Year) falls in January this year.
In some of the touristy areas of Beijing, pretty young girls sporting red Santa hats were now trying to tempt passers by into their shops; and at times the sight of a chubby old man with a red hat and thick white beard was becoming as common as Colonel Sanders, another well known bearded man over here.
In the Diplomatic area, Santa obviously felt more at home, though times are obviously hard (perhaps it is the Eurozone crisis yet again?) as he had left the majority of his reindeer behind. I mean, not a red nose in sight!
The touristy markets, of course, are the exception that proves the rule. Gaudy decorations for Christmas are intermingled with gaudy decorations for the Spring Holiday, and I am sure that there will be many a piece of gaudy plastic left up throughout the whole of January.
Mind you, I haven’t yet seen any mistletoe for sale anywhere in Beijing (a woody stemmed parasitic plant with waxy white berries) – something that you will always find in Europe. According to ancient Christmas custom, a man and a woman who meet under the mistletoe are obliged to kiss and even now, no girl (or guy!) can refuse to be kissed under the mistletoe!
At work, Christmas finally arrived on the 20th December when four Chinese guys took a couple of hours to erect a not-very-big plastic Christmas tree in the entrance hall of our office, complete with flashing lights, tinsel and baubles. Given that the tree is only about 4-5ft tall, you might be forgiven for wondering how come it took so long for four people to set it up?
From what I could see in my various wanderings past the work site, there was heated debate of where to put the star. Should it go in the middle? Maybe there should be two stars – one on the right and one on the left? Another star was procured, from where is anyone’s guess. But someone then had the brilliant idea of putting the first star at the top of the tree. So what to do with the second star? Better put it under the first star, because then it looks “meant”.
As for the fairy lights, it didn’t take long for someone to work out that the nearest power point is used for the office microwave. So now we have a Christmas tree that is lit up in the morning, and lit up in the afternoon, but is strangely dark during lunch hours!
Not to be outdone, the apartment block – which actually belongs to the same company - decided that they too would install Christmas trees on all the floors in which expatriate workers live, but not on the Chinese-only floors, which seems a tad mean-spirited I think. The trees are erected just outside the lift doors and are a warming sight as one steps out of one’s apartment to face another day in this secular utopia.
Downstairs, by the entrance, someone has got hold of a ghastly giant Santa sticker that says “Merry” in big letters, leaving one to search for a tiny “Christmas” that is actually there if one has the patience to look for it!
These ghastly Santas have mushroomed everywhere in the past few days (someone obviously bought a job lot of them) where they sit incongruously in the company of Chinese lions, Pi Xiu and lanterns.
The Hilton Hotel, according to tradition, has one of the largest trees of Beijing’s hotels. It takes up the entire foyer area and whereas before there was ample seating for visitors waiting to meet people and sup a tea or coffee to fill the time, now they have to cram into a tiny corner – and probably miss the people they have come to meet who walk by on the other side of the tree.
Mind you, anyone who likes model railways can enjoy the big boys’ train set whizzing around the base of the tree. I counted 12 trains and seven stations, (although I have to admit I might have miscounted when one of Santa’s mini-skirted helpers walked by serving out coffee).
So “out of practice” as I most certainly am with Christmas festivities, it will make a pleasant change, I think, to experience a Chinese Christmas for the first time. The only question is – where on earth can one buy mistletoe in this town?