By Eileen Wacker and Jennifer Lau
Holiday celebrations have become powerful family traditions. Somehow Saint Nicholas and Christmas trees found popular support and gained traction here in the US.
The legend and lore of Saint Nicolas came to the US with Dutch immigrants. Saint Nicholas was a patron saint of children who lived in Turkey in the 4th century and became one of Europe’s favorite saints due to his benevolence toward children. In the U.S., the first appearance of Santa Clause was dressed in bishops’ robes. After solidifying his fan base, in 1860 Harper’s Magazine started running illustrations of Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus and he gained meteoric popularity with families, especially children.
Over the years the image of Santa Clause became more secular, the reindeers were named, the North Pole became his assigned home and the story of Christmas was embraced by the nation. Several years later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert put up a Christmas tree in their lavish London home with decorations and lights.
The Christmas tree took off as one of the hottest fashion trends of the time and Americans rushed out to get them. Today Santa and Christmas trees are holiday icons. For 150 years, Christmas has had commercial twists and turns but there are still some constants — children’s anticipation, holiday merriment and giving to others.
In recent years, these principles have been embraced by Asia despite being predominantly non-Christian — the major religions are Buddhism and Shinto. We lived in Asia for many years and experienced the growth in popularity of Christmas. In Japan, Christmas is a widely celebrated commercial event.
Parents give gifts to children and couples give gifts to each other. Christmas Eve is the main celebration with meals out and young couples strolling arm in arm along beautifully lit up boulevards. Stores are open on Christmas day and people go into large decorated retailers and get a treat from staff dressed up as Santa or wearing an elf cap. Buying Christmas trees is on the rise. Families have parties and eat Japanese sponge cake with a Santa figurine on top.
Although the majority of artificial trees are manufactured in China, most workers who make them do not know the significance of Christmas or the tree. But that is changing — Christmas has become trendy. In major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, major retailers decorate and embrace the holiday. Many homes now have Christmas trees and they are increasingly popular.
Chinese people love and embrace Christmas songs. Jingle Bells was downloaded over a million times last year. Only around 1 percent of Chinese classify themselves as Christian so it is a commercial holiday there. People exchange gifts and now China openly highlights Christmas as a celebration to spread love and happiness to loved ones. The government has sanctioned the celebration and even given it a specific Chinese theme.
There are more Christians in South Korea than China or Japan. But 70 percent of the population is Buddhist so Christmas is not a religious holiday. Christmas is a national holiday. Going to church on Christmas Eve is very fashionable and its popularity is growing. The churches overflow with people, many Non Christians, who want to participate in the celebration.
There are amazing displays of light around Seoul and the city center houses an elaborate, lit up tree seen for miles. People do not exchange many presents – usually just one for the kids – and money remains the most popular gift. Santa can be dressed in red or blue and found in stores giving out candy and goods to people, especially children. They eat traditional Korean food – no ham or turkey and Christmas is a big occasion to eat out.
So it hit us, they areAsia is celebrating Christmas traditions but in their own way. They adore Christmas trees and ceremony of the midnight mass; they love gifts and fanfare. Why are we so upset by the commercial aspects they are embracing?
We surveyed 50 people aged 8-25 years old whom we will refer to as “Team Christmas” due to their enthusiastic and optimistic responses. Forty three of the responders selected Christmas as their favorite holiday (birthdays and New Years Eve got a few votes) despite the hassles and the woes.
On “Team Christmas,” holiday spirit, traditions and celebration are alive. They treasure the season, remember what is important, and feel grateful for friends and family. For many, religious and spiritual significance is also quite important. Almost everyone mentioned sharing the good cheer and giving to others who are less fortunate.
“Team Christmas” is immune to commercialization; they’ve grown up and are desensitized to it. When they hear adults complaining about how commercial the holiday has become, they are puzzled, thinking, “what’s all the fuss about?” Kids love Christmas and embrace the way their individual family celebrates. Later in life many of their happiest memories come from these holiday celebrations.
“Team Christmas” is so busy with activities, sports teams and commitments, test and college prep, orthodontists and driver’s education — the list is endless. There is very little time left for kids just to be kids. So Christmas is the most wonderful time for them – no expectations, just sleeping in and hanging out. It is a vacation from their everyday lives and they savor it.
We imported many elements of Christmas as a trendy celebration. We need to get our Christmas mojo back. It’s all about establishing and reinforcing traditions in our children and giving to those less fortunate. Christmas commercialization is a first world problem. Just embrace it — and throw any negativity out like old wrapping paper. Because 150 years later it’s still about excited children, holiday merriment and giving to others. Happy Holidays.
Eileen Wacker is the award-winning children’s author of the Fujimini Adventure Series. She lives in Honolulu, HI with her husband and four children. For additional information please visit www.oncekids.com.