I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

By Bryan Liu, Living Arts Co-Editor

Radiohead’s 1995 alternative chart topper, “Fake Plastic Trees,” is about my Christmas tree.

The eponymous fake Chinese rubber plant lives rent-free in my mom’s closet—but having a deeply closeted tree come out every December only to retreat back mid-January isn’t as tiring or dramatic as I thought it’d be; on the contrary, it’s kind of inspiring. I know because I am the Lorax, and I speak for the trees. I’m also deeply closeted—I’m not gay, just deeply closeted.

My mom brought our titular plastic tree home decades ago—I used to water it every day. I also took it out for sunlight and walked it around the block. She told me she ripped it straight out of the ground from the North Pole after wrestling Frosty the Snowman: she won by setting him on fire. I hear he’s back now, but he’s too pussy to mess with me. The tree is from Target. 

We decorated it once for the novelty, but we didn’t feel American doing it—we kept the decorations on to avoid the trouble. Our tree looks exactly the same—plastic but beautiful. We look older. 

The boughs sag with store-bought ornaments that I used to think were edible—like strange fruit. Every kid wonders what those shiny-ass tinseled balls of glitter would taste like—that’s why the boxes always come with a sticker that says WARNING: choking hazard, keep out of reach from small children. Christmas has always been out of reach. 

We plucked them from retail orchards of clearance sections and second-hand rummage sales—the ornaments I liked best were the ones that were shiny enough to be reflective so I could get my face real close and watch the convex surface distort my features.

The fake trunk is still tied up with miles and miles of tree lights criss-crossed in enough knots to confuse an Eagle Scout. I’m not kink shaming, but every family has a tree posing in bondage. 

Chinese people love Santa Claus. 

I swear he’s one of us. I’m convinced that the whole bit about him “living in the North Pole” is another way of saying “he’s Chinese” because all of the toys are “made in China.” Chinese Santa even plays the saxophone. 

When it comes to making Christmas products, the city of Yiwu single-handedly occupies 80 percent of the global market share, exporting over $251 million dollars of goods in 2022 alone. Tucked away in the Eastern province of Zhejiang, the “Christmas Village” is home to over 600 factories that specialize in trees, lights, hats, wreaths, and other decorative supplies. Santa’s fabled workshop might as well be China’s sweatshops.

Production tends to peak in the summer months so shipments can be sent and shelves can be stocked before it’s actually Christmas. A lot of the activity during the off-season relies on Dickensian industrial labor—i.e., the oompa-loompa-ish exploitation of rural migrant workers from the south of China.

Not all factories are the same, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that children’s dreams are built on workers’ nightmares. Employers pay about the equivalent of 50 cents for every branch of plastic tree made or meter of tinsel spun. Exposure to hazardous chemicals in paints and dyes is not uncommon. Workers are confined to dormitory-style housing for 50 weeks a year and are expected to run overtime nearly three times the legal limit. 

Christmas will always be a business.

Outside the factory walls, the holiday has been popular with the Chinese youth since the ‘90s. China takes the “Christ” out of “Christmas”—and I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m just saying that the 12 days, Nativity, and all the Jesus-centric jargon gets dwarfed by the allure of a Western novelty: it’s not an official public holiday. Instead, Christmas is a commercial season for people to buy gifts for each other and raw-dog the carols out of their local economy. 

In addition to karaoke parties and lavish feasts, it’s not uncommon for Chinese cities to adorn shopping areas with inflatable Santa figures, flashing lights, fake snow, and the biggest fucking Christmas tree you’ve ever seen—it looks like America. In all of its secular glory, Christmas can only be commercialized, so no shit it’s enjoyable—who doesn’t love spending money?

But in response to its growing popularity, the Chinese Communist Party issued a directive last year calling Christmas a “forbidden Western tradition.” And although my first impression of the statement was shit, the CCP just canceled Christmas—the legality of actually celebrating Christmas is a lot more complicated. 

It’s not Grinch behavior: it’s nationalism at its finest. 

Chinese students first learn about foreign festivals like Christmas in an educational context, the same way American students are exposed to St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and in some cases, Lunar New Year, at a young age. And while some parts of Christmas may be oversimplified to fit the approved curriculum—i.e, the whole Jesus-was-born-today schtick—this new directive prohibits public schools and universities from actively celebrating non-Chinese holidays. 

For instance, The Department of Education of Rong’an County in Liuzhou city of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region addressed all elementary schools and kindergartens with a letter titled: “Spreading the Chinese traditional culture and forbidding Western festival celebrations.” 

Under the new initiative, Christmas is weaponized: citizens are encouraged to contact the authorities immediately if they see any Christmas events being arranged—failure to comply can get them reported. Gone are the days of caroling with your English tutor or decorating the tree with loved ones; replaced instead with an exclusive in-class screening of a state-approved educational Christmas documentary.

The CCP’s party platform has always despised Western cultural influence: emphasizing statutory celebration of traditional Chinese holidays like Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival as public displays of patriotism—none of this new-age heretical ho-ho-ho horseshit. Many families boycott Christmas to prove their loyalty to the CCP, while others refuse celebrating to “avoid trouble.” China hates the fact that a Western tradition like Christmas can compete with time-honored Chinese customs.

Christmas is more than a holiday: it’s a threat.

And of course, there are still certain “cosmetic” celebrations of Christmas by state-sanctioned churches that are broadcasted to make it look like there are no restrictions. China is officially an atheist nation with the exception of five federally recognized religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, and, in this case, Christianity. With that being said, the less than 100 million Christians living in China only make up about five percent of the population. Public celebration isn’t politically correct anymore. 

So Christians partake privately and quietly. Celebrating Christmas counts as religious activity—which is only allowed if approved by the CCP. It’s also acceptable for shopping malls and stores to put up decorations and launch promotional sales, as long as they keep a low-profile. 

The irony here is that Chinese-Americans fucking love Christmas.

I never had to choose between my ethnicity and my nationality during the Christmas season—I got the best of both worlds. Syncretism is already enough of a celebration. 

An evergreen trope of Asian-American literature is when the American suburban neighbor invites the archetypal immigrant family over for Christmas dinner—often to the horror of their first-generation children. The converse is also true: in return, the aforementioned Asian-American family will invite their American neighbors over for Christmas dinner—also to the horror of their first-generation children. But even though we get to eat the same food and sip from the same wine glasses for a night, we must be shown Christmas through the lens of a white family before we get to show them ours.

The first-generation embarrassment of not being “American enough” when my version of Christmas didn’t match up with what I saw in the movies or what my classmates called “Christmas” always made me insecure. And it’s not about where the “Chinese” ends and where the “American” begins—Christmas was the time to ask myself, shit am I doing this right?

My mom and I used to dream about a white Christmas—so one year we just started going to them. She thought it would make us look normal, but after all this time, I think we’re still dreaming. My mom left the rest of her family in Beijing—and we can’t really fly back every winter to see them, so when we started going to white people’s houses for the holidays, it felt like we were still part of a family somewhere. It felt right

And I’m not saying we’re not enough of a family—I know we are, but we weren’t the American family: a mom and a dad with two-and-a-half kids and grandparents who never got along and aunts and uncles who brought their weird-ass kids—for the longest time, that was the only Christmas I wanted. 

Christmas is like the highest-stakes section on the annual national “how assimilated are you” exam—and I’m a really good test-taker. But I live in a whole country of really good test-takers who are eager to prove to their communities that they belong here just as much as the next F.O.B son-of-a-bitch wannabe American dreamer—so I studied Christmas. I worked on Quizlet sets in the off-season and ran gift-wrapping drills in my spare time. I participated the most in the Christmas-themed school activities. I graced the lap of every mall Santa. I rode the Polar Express. 

But I’ve always been a tourist. 

This whole time I was trying to make up for something I don’t have: that goddamn American family. Year after year I felt disillusioned because no matter how hard I prepared for it, the myth of a white Christmas is still exactly what it sounds like—white. But it doesn’t have to be. Christmas isn’t mutually exclusive.

So celebrate however you want. We’re all dreaming of Christmas.