Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Eve apples

A year or two ago, I was discussing the custom of Christmas trees with one of my students. I had never given much thought to the tradition, so it was interesting to see how a person unfamiliar with the ritual viewed it.

“Do most people have Christmas trees in their homes?” she asked me.

“Yes, most people do,” I answered, not delving into the complexities of the religious aspect of it.

“So how long do you keep the tree?” she further questioned.

“Everyone is different, maybe a month,” I explained.

“Is it a real tree?”

“Some people have fake trees. Many people buy real ones,” I told her.

“What do you do with the tree after Christmas?”

“We throw it away.”

She stared at me incredulously, “Isn't that a bit of a waste?!”

“Hmm. I suppose it is. . . . I think they make wood chips out of the trees though,” I tried to rationalize.

wrapped apples
I thought more about it. Christmas trees are wasteful, but I couldn't imagine the holidays without one, so I find the waste excusable. But do you know what kind of holiday waste I do not find acceptable? Dozens of sheets of tissue paper used to wrap a rotten apple. For those of you who do not live in China, let me explain. . .

students picking out paper for apple wrapping
There is an odd Chinese tradition, on Christmas Eve, for local children to exchange apples. The reason for this relates to the Chinese word for Christmas Eve, 平安夜 (píng'ān yè), which literally translated means “peaceful night.” The first character, pronounced píng, is a homophone for the first character in the Chinese word for apple (苹果, píngguǒ). Years ago, some clever Chinese fruit seller must have figured that this word play would be a great way to cash in on a foreign holiday most Chinese people know little about—naturally, on Christmas Eve you must exchange apples! Most of my students assume this is a foreign tradition and are surprised to learn I had never heard of it before coming to China. For some of my more advanced students, I try to explain that this custom must have roots in China as Christmas Eve and apple are homophones in Mandarin, not in English or other foreign languages (that I know of).

 Over the years, I've seen the tradition of giving apples grow more and more excessive. The apples are often wrapped in layers upon layers of tissue paper and cellophane. They are decorated with ribbons, bows, and even tiny teddy bears. They are often sold for ridiculous sums of money. Even in Chengde, you can find an intricately wrapped apple for upwards of 60 rmb (US$10). It seems like an awful waste of paper and the worst part is, since the apple is often wrapped in advanced, the buyer has no idea of its quality. Inevitably, you are giving someone the gift of a half rotten apple and a bunch of colorful paper she will just throw in the trash.

My students like me too much (or don't like me enough?) to give me a rotten apple for Christmas. That's great, as it's a gift I'd rather not receive.

What about you, what's the worst gift you've ever gotten?


Sarah - Diariesofayangxifu said...

That's interesting that people thought it was a tradition which came from the West. I've had a lot of friends explain it to me proudly as 'a Chinese take on Christmas'. I didn't realise it was such a bi business until this year when I saw apples which had actually been grown with 平安 on the skin (like a kind of stencil whilst they were growing...)

Anyway, in order to try and make our family's Christmas a bit more multicultural, I've baked an apple pie and I'll see whether we can turn this into a family tradition!

Anonymous said...

I have heard of this tradition but never seen the wrapped apples. Now that you mention it, on Sunday I went to the supermarket and they were selling HUGE apples, without the packaging, but huge and for 23 RMB each. I didn't make the connection but now I think they must be for Christmas Eve!

rosieinbj said...

@Sarah I suppose because I'm dealing with young ones they don't know much about the tradition. I never talked about it with someone more my age so it's interesting that young adults have a different take on it.

@Marta I assumed this went on everywhere in China. I think you're lucky that you don't have to deal with it. I really find it silly!

Mary O'Halloran said...

Wow!! I have never heard of this tradition!!! Very interesting!! I didn't really see this done in Shanghai much (but then again, I didn't work in schools).

rosieinbj said...

@Mary Thanks for your comment! I was thinking about it and I don't think I ever see this away from the "school street" (where most of the grade school and middle schools are) in our city. I think it's just a tradition for kids, although Sarah mentioned the apples at the store with characters on them and I guess that's more of the adult version!