Christmas in Mongolia (and Halloween, too)

Disclaimer: We didn’t actually spend Christmas in Mongolia; we went back to California for the holidays. But we started noticing signs of Christmas here almost as early as we’d see them if we were in the USA: Signs that Christmas has become a global secular consumerfest. Mongolia is only about 2% Christian, but Christmas was everywhere in Ulaanbaatar. We also saw quite a few Christmas decorations in Beijing during our layovers in mid-December and on January 2.

Christmas isn’t the only foreign holiday we’ve noticed in Mongolia; the first one was Halloween, which has become a major export from the USA. The history of Halloween goes back to the pre-Christian era in Western Europe, with probable roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrating the end of the harvest season. But All Hallows’ Eve grew as a Christian observation of the night before All Saint’s Day (All Hallows’ Day). The holiday was brought to the USA in the mass Scottish and Irish immigration in the mid-19th century, only spreading beyond these immigrant communities in the early 20th century. In the modern USA, Halloween has taken a specific form, involving dressing in costumes and trick-or-treating, going house to house asking for candy, plus an association with haunting and other scary phenomena (including, more recently, grisly murders inspired by horror movies). Typical Halloween decorations include jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, witches, and black cats.

This is the kind of Halloween I noticed here in Mongolia. It’s not as massive as Christmas, but people have been adopting Halloween decorations and customs here, especially in Ulaanbaatar. There isn’t trick-or-treating, as far as I know, but there are Halloween parties, and a couple of shops were selling Halloween decorations and costumes. In fact, this past October, the Mongolian government banned the celebration of Halloween in schools because parents complained that their kids were asking them for money for costumes to wear to school and to pay for school celebrations. The root of the complaint was that the Western holiday is at odds with Mongolia’s predominantly Buddhist culture.

Halloween came to Mongolian schools through English language learning, but adults in Mongolia have started celebrating Halloween as well, and it’s more of an adult holiday here, from what I’ve heard. People dress up and go to Halloween parties at bars. The National Amusement Park in downtown Ulaanbaatar also has a haunted house; the park itself closes for the winter after Halloween. We didn’t go to the haunted house because I heard it was pretty gory, and Emma wasn’t interested, but I would have liked to have seen it.

Emma’s school, the International School of Ulaanbaatar, had a low-key Halloween celebration, with costumes and a costume contest at lunch. Emma was too homesick at that point to really get excited about it; she was hearing from her California friends about what they were planning to be for Halloween, and who they were going trick-or-treating with. She had brought two Halloween-themed t-shirts with her, thinking she’d probably outgrow them this year, so she wore a skeleton t-shirt and gloves to school, but that was the extent of her commitment this year. For my part, I bought a pumpkin-like squash at the supermarket and paired it up with our inflatable palm tree cupholder, to make a California-themed decoration for our table.

Our Halloween table decoration

The Christmas decorations started coming shortly after Halloween, just like in the US. The iconography of Christmas seems to have become the same everywhere: Santa Claus (an elderly, heavyset, bearded white man in a red suit), Christmas trees, evergreen wreaths, brightly wrapped presents, reindeer with sleigh, nutcrackers, snowmen, snowflakes. Christmas decorations are pouring out of factories in China and other East Asian countries at ever increasing rates. At one point, I taught a course on globalization, and I used to show my students a documentary called “Santa’s Workshop: Inside China’s Slave Labor Toy Factories.” As the title implies, it was mainly about toy production, but the volume of Christmas decorations pouring out of China and Hong Kong is also pretty impressive. According to an article in The Guardian, the city of Yiwu, China, produces about 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations. With Chinese influence strong in Mongolia, and with Mongolia’s turn toward Western-style capitalist consumption over the last couple of decades, it’s no wonder Christmas has been picked up here.

I am not sure how widespread Christmas is in Mongolia, but it was clearly evident here in Ulaanbaatar. Aside from Christmas decorations appearing in shops and around town in early November, I also noticed a lot of advertising for Black Friday, the day after the American holiday of Thanksgiving (the third Thursday in November), particularly from the larger department stores and electronics stores. Like in the USA, Black Friday offers discounts on all sorts of consumer goods, from major home appliances to consumer electronics. Several people told me, though, that the discounts aren’t as significant as the ads make them seem, and it’s not very popular yet. Even so, I was surprised to see the promotion of this quintessentially American phenomenon that’s starting to be observed in other countries around the world.

Black Friday in Mongolia?

Emma and I first saw Christmas decorations at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in the Shangri-La Mall on November 8. It was Chinggis Khan’s birthday, a holiday in Mongolia, and we both had the day off. We were meeting some of Emma’s friends at the mall to go to the Japanese embassy for the afternoon (one of her school friends lives there). I don’t remember there being a lot of decorations yet at the mall, but the coffee shop was completely done over with Christmas glitz. I’m sure the mall was, too, eventually, but we didn’t make it back there before the holidays.

The following week, when Emma and I were walking between her school and Naran Tuul, a large outdoor market, we noticed the Gold Christmas Shop. The artificial tree out front was bright blue, with a red star on top. The overall effect was pretty amazing. We also noticed other artificial trees and lights popping up all around the city. Our own local shopping center, Tenger Plaza, opened its own Christmas shop, which I saw for the first time on December 1, though the Christmas decorations had started there a bit earlier. You could buy an entirely lit and decorated artificial tree, with a bright star on top, wrapped up to make transportation easier. Some of the Christmas decorations are still up in the supermarket and on the entrance doors, as of January 13—little paper Santas and snowmen stuck to the glass, and glittering ornaments hanging over the aisles.

The other thing Emma and I noticed around town was the canned Christmas music playing in a lot of the stores. There were the usual instrumental versions of European and American songs—traditional carols and other (“Rudolph,” “Jingle Bells,” etc.). What’s funny is I never noticed canned music playing in these places before, but now that we’re back, I’m going to pay more attention (and I’ll let you know).

Emma’s school hosted the International Women’s Association of Mongolia’s annual Christmas Fair on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 24. Emma had rehearsal for her school play, Shrek: The Musical (she was Puss in Boots), so I went and hung out at the school. The event promised “holiday shopping, local artisans, and local brands,” and I had been planning to do the bulk of our Christmas shopping there. Unfortunately, as we were getting ready to leave the apartment, I had a disagreement with my desk chair while putting on my socks, and I fell on my right hand. I didn’t break anything, but it was very painful and swollen by the time we got to the school, so I wasn’t at all in the mood for shopping.

The fair itself was also a bit overwhelming: lots of booths set up in the large lobby outside the school theater, as well as up and down a couple of hallways, accompanied by large crowds as the day wore on. The Christmas theme was prevalent, though there were also booths selling Mongolian crafts and products (I bought a mask for our wall, and some honey). The most amazing thing was a Christmas tree that turned out to be a display for Panda Shop, “The Christmas Shopping.” Their flyers promised “The Most Realistic Trees”: “Using the latest technology and highest quality craftsmanship, we work relentlessly to create amazingly realistic Christmas trees you’ll love.” Yep, they’re relentless, just like Christmas itself.

What was unnerving about all the Christmas decorations in Mongolia was that we didn’t really expect it, though I realize that we should have. Christmas has become a part of global popular culture (which I’ll be teaching my students about in Spring semester). It’s no surprise that a certain version of Christmas has spread around the world, just as consumerism has. And for much of the world, this is what Christmas is: an opportunity to shop, decorate, give gifts. Unfortunately, just as many people are realizing that this sort of consumption—indeed, overconsumption—is behind the environmental crises we face in the 21st century, it has become much more of an option for people living in countries like Mongolia, which had been sheltered from consumer capitalism either by their communist-leaning governments or by sheer poverty.

In Mongolia’s case, Christmas was probably introduced by Russian, Chinese, or other international influences, following the fall of the Soviet-backed communist government in 1990. Since then, Mongolia has been transforming rapidly to a capitalist economy, and commercialism has been on the rise. Christmas is part of this transformation. New Year’s is the more celebrated holiday, but the Christmas décor is also part of the New Year’s tradition here.

Christmas is also significant at my university, but this makes much more sense, as Mongolia International University was founded by Christian missionaries from South Korea, and many of the faculty, staff, and students are devoutly practicing Christians (although quite a few of them are not). The Music Department organized a Christmas concert, and Christmas decorations showed up on campus during the month of December. Emma and I missed the Christmas party organized by the Student Union, which was held a few days after we left for California. And the students in the dorm had a Christmas decorating contest, in which the Grinch featured large, as well as other secular expressions of Christmas, like Rudolph, snowmen, and Santa.

The Christmas theme continued in our layover in Beijing. We noticed decorations at Beijing Capital Airport, and also at our hotel, the Novotel Beijing Sanyuan, and a Chinese restaurant where we had breakfast. What was interesting about the Christmas trees that we saw was that they were made out of other things. The tree at the Novotel was made out of fake books–cardboard boxes made to look like books (some with real titles, like Jane Eyre, and others made up). The tree at the restaurant was made from plastic tea bottles (exactly like the Oolong tea I had myself), with dried leaves inside them. The staff in the restaurant wore Christmas headgear, as well: Santa hats or Christmas bobble headbands.

On our way back through Beijing in January, we saw elaborate Christmas lights in the area around the airport, as well as in the lobby of the Beijing Airport Hilton, where we spent the night. Given that China is the source of so much of the world’s Christmas décor, it only makes sense that we would find it there. China is home to tens of millions of Christians, but Christmas is not really connected to Christianity there, just as in Mongolia. People decorate, and younger Chinese exchange gifts with friends and colleagues, so Christmas is tied up with the growth of commercialism in China, just as it is in Mongolia. It’s no surprise that the same secular expressions of the holiday you see in a predominantly Christian nation like the USA have also become popular in countries with little Christian influence, since the spread of this version of the holiday has very little to do with Christianity, and much to do with that other religion, capitalist consumerism.

Airport Hilton lobby
Happy New Year!

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