Seeing Christmas Through the ‘Apple’ of China’s Eyes

The other day, while browsing Alibaba’s Tmall, the online giant’s popular virtual shopping center, I happened upon a Christmas item that I had never seen before: gift boxes for Christmas Eve Apples.

They had the kind of charming little Christmas trees, Santas, reindeer, snowmen and holiday greetings you would expect to find on cards or boxes at, say, a Hallmark store. Except you wouldn’t find such a product on any shelves of a Hallmark store. Never in America had I encountered boxes made explicitly for apples that you present on Christmas Eve — because no such tradition existed in my home country.

Yet, based on the stats for this online store in China, over 100,000 people have already ordered sets of 50 from them just this month. And that store has plenty of company, with tens of others vying to gain business from young people who want the perfect little box for their Christmas Eve Apples.

I had known for some years that China turned Christmas Eve into a time for giving apples, particularly among young, urban people (even though it’s not a tradition in any Western country that celebrates Christmas). But I didn’t realize you even needed special boxes for the apples!

It stood as proof of just how far the tradition has integrated itself into the lives of young, urban Chinese — that it had spawned an entire industry of packaging to support the custom.

As much as I’ve known foreigners who feel ambivalent or puzzled by the idea of giving apples on Christmas Eve, I also recognize that it’s not just China that promotes traditions or concepts of other cultures that are, in fact, not necessarily traditional at all.

Consider the fortune cookie, that ubiquitous after-dinner treat at nearly every Chinese restaurant in North America. I remember participating in a Chinese New Year celebration at a university in the US, which offered fortune cookies to those in attendance, mainly white American families. How many of them actually knew that, in China, fortune cookies don’t exist? That nobody would even think of the cookies as indispensable for Chinese New Year?

So I’ve decided that, in a way, Christmas Eve Apples — and their associated boxes — are a kind of “fortune cookie” of China, one explicitly linked to a Western holiday. And while I’ll probably never partake in this uniquely Chinese tradition for Christmas, that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful, worthwhile or even a little delicious.

Seeing Christmas through China’s eyes, through the emergence of this new tradition, has reminded me that holidays and traditions can evolve when they go overseas, sometimes with surprising results. Or even gift boxes.

What do you think?

P.S.: Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, wherever you are!

Jocelyn Eikenburg
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