Expensive Apples Mean Christmas Time in China

While Americans shell out wads of US dollars for high-tech presents like iPhones and Xboxes, Chinese friends exchange pricey, gift-wrapped apples.

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Dec 24 2014, 5:30pm

Anyone bemoaning the loss of the True Meaning of Christmas probably shouldn't celebrate in China. Here, it's mostly business as usual on the 25th. Vacation time won't come until weeks later for China's own winter holiday: Chinese New Year in mid-February.

Santa exists primarily in malls, plus the occasional grocery store or cafe. Some members of the younger generation have started playing Secret Santa, while others have bought artificial trees for their homes and offices.

All photos by the author

All photos by the author

There is, however, one Christmas tradition that's distinctly Chinese: Apples.

The Chinese word for apple, pingguo, sounds a lot like the Chinese word for Christmas Eve, ping'an ye, and, as such, a tradition has formed. While Americans shell out wads of US dollars for high-tech presents like iPhones and Xboxes, Chinese friends simply exchange apples.

I'm in an over-lit fruit market in Hangzhou, a city of eight million not far from Shanghai. Christmas music—albeit in Mandarin—is playing over the store loudspeakers. Staffers are wearing green aprons and red Santa caps. This is the most Christmas spirit I've seen outside Starbucks.

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It's an odd time to grocery shop—Saturday night, just before closing—but the store is full. Santa-capped employees hand bags of fruit to a stream of customers.

I walk past stacks of tiny, apple-sized boxes. Some boxes are clear, save for the outlines of cute cartoon bears with tiny plastic ears popping up on top. Some boxes proclaim "Merry Christmas!" and "Happy New Year!" in English on their sides. Some apples aren't in boxes at all, but are rather all tied up in festive pink and purple cellophane.

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I opt for a more traditional Western package of red and green cardboard and I call over an employee for help. He's dressed in head-to-toe Santa Claus garb, complete with black boots and a fake beard.

"Merry Christmas!" I say, momentarily forgetting that this particular Kris Kringle might not understand me.

It may be tempting for a Westerner to write off this apple giving tradition as a cheap Christmas marketing gimmick. But when a friend once told me to bring apples to my first-ever Chinese dinner party, it seemed like a cheap offering until I saw the price: Nearly 70 RMB (over $10) for just a few of them. That's not unbearably expensive, but the cost is comparable to produce we'd consider exotic in the US.

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Meanwhile, in the fruit market in my neighborhood, a woman in a Santa cap is ringing me up at the cashier.

"Merry Christmas," I say, once again forgetting about the language barrier. Then I realize I don't even know how to say Christmas in Mandarin. Instead, I fall back on my old faithful phrase, one which I hope will evoke what I mean: A big smile and "Xiexie, zaijian."

Thank you, goodbye.