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Why nonChristians are drawn to Christmas

Sure, Christmas has enticing secular trappings for countries like China. But some aspects hint at its eternal message.

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A shop worker decorates the street with red lanterns in celebration of Christmas in Shanghai, China, Dec. 19. Christmas, while not traditionally celebrated, is gaining popularity in the communist country with retailers capitalizing on the holiday to boost sales.

AP Photo

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One curious trend in the global economy is how many countries with few Christians now enjoy aspects of Christmas – the giving of gifts, an exchange of cards, even singing “Last Christmas” by Exile. What other religion has had its holiday traditions transcend so many borders?

Christmas has become the world’s most widely celebrated religious holiday, even if it is more commercially exploited than religiously observed in nonChristian countries – and even if the Santa Claus fantasies overshadow the day’s real meaning: the coming of Christ to humanity.

To be sure, the spread of Christmas is driven in large part by retailers – and governments – trying to find new reasons to drum up consumer spending. (Halloween and Valentine’s Day are becoming popular, too.) In many Muslim countries, it is this materialistic aspect that is often decried by Islamic preachers.

And sometimes, the Christian part gets lost in translation: Foreigners in Japan tell the tale of a Tokyo department store that once decorated a window with a Santa Claus on a cross.

But not all imports of Christmas are purely secular or for profit. In Pakistan, where Christians comprise less than 2 percent of the population, Muslim families welcome Christian carolers singing door to door. In mainly Hindu India, where Christmas Day is a state holiday, many schools hold Christmas celebrations and people give sweets to neighbors.

The most explosive growth in celebrating a secular Christmas has been in China. Since the 1990s, the Communist Party has loosened its control over this “Western holiday.” Urban youth have embraced it, seeing Christmas as an opportunity to give gifts, celebrate with friends, and tie up a romance with a wedding. Stores often record their biggest sales around Christmas. Many Chinese can be seen wearing reindeer antlers or Santa hats. Some give specially wrapped apples as gifts (the Chinese word for apple sounds like “Silent Night.”)

As long as Chinese see only the commercial aspects, the government may not worry about the religious meaning. Still, in 2006 a group of university students started an online petition to boycott Christmas, claiming it is a Western plot to erode Chinese culture.

The Santa-esque commercialism may achieve that. But certainly not the universal message of Christmas as seen in its practice. The giving of gifts, for example, serves as a reminder to think of others rather than be thought well-of. The lights, sounds, and colors of Christmas are symbols of universal joy. Joining with family and friends at Christmas provides a moment to celebrate tenderness, kindness, and forgiveness. However crudely Christmas is exported around the world, its practices can sometimes put its eternal meaning into action. Who doesn’t want to be merry and bright?

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