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Cashing in on Christmas

Lori HerberDecember 24, 2013

Even predominantly Hindu and Muslim countries deck the halls and department store windows during the traditional Christian holiday. For retailers, especially, this makes the season's profits all the more merry.

Students in China parade, dressed as Santa Claus
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Bratwurst sizzles as the spicy aroma of mulled wine wafts between the vendors' wooden stalls. Santa parts the crowd, dispersing candy to a swarm of children. He's come a long way from the North Pole to face the blazing Indian sun, but he couldn't pass up the German Christmas market in Delhi - even if the country is overwhelmingly Hindu.

Move over, baby Jesus. For many non-Christian countries like India and China, Christmas has become a seasonal necessity, spiking retail sales, spreading secular cheer and prompting festive store-window displays intent on luring big spenders.

But back to the Christmas market. The Indo-German Chamber of commerce has been sponsoring the event in Delhi for 16 years now. Here, religion takes a back seat.

"It is a totally commercial event meaning to promote Indo-German trade and culture in the joyful setting of a Christmas market, which is so famous in Germany," said Navina Choudhury, project director of the event where Indian and German vendors peddle their wares. "It's popular for everybody who's fun-loving and wants to buy Christmas goodies or just do shopping in a fun atmosphere."

Children smile next to a man dressed as Santa Claus at the German Christmas Market in Delhi, India
The Christmas market in Delhi was such a success that Mumbai launched its own versionImage: Indo-German Chamber of Commerce

Aside from the social aspect, Choudhury says it's a platform for businesses to garner recognition. Big German corporations like Audi, for example, help sponsor the event.

"A lot of companies get good branding and exposure in this format," she said, adding that the event tends to draw 10,000 - 12,000 visitors annually. Beyond the Christmas market, however, Choudhury said the holiday cheer extends into Delhi's public sphere. "Hotels, markets, everything gets decorated in a Christmas fashion. Nobody would do without it."

Deck the New Year's tree?

Against the soundscape of minaret calls in Istanbul, Christmas decorations dangle from the streetlamps. Department stores tout trimmed trees. But don't go calling them Christmas trees. In Turkey these pines are marketed as "New Year's Trees."

Christmas light decorations dangle from street lamps on major shopping street, Istikal Caddesi in Istanbul Photo: Carsten Hoffmann dpa (Zu dpa-Korr
Christmas decorations dangle from street lamps on Istanbul's shopping street Istikal CaddesiImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Even if it's not exactly called Christmas, Muslim-majority Turkey also profits from the holiday spirit. Fancy hotels, retail chains and fancy restaurants deck the halls.

Pelin Cakar heads the upscale "Luca" restaurant in Istanbul's classy Bebek district. Christmas trees - or New Year's trees, rather, dot the dining room. A string of lights lines the outdoor terrace.

"For us, they aren't decorations for Christmas, but rather, for the New Year," Cakar said. "We decorate because it's a festive month, and because the decoration fits accordingly."

Despite the alluring decorations, Cakar says that cashing in on the holidays isn't her priority. "For us the financial aspect isn't our foremost focus, the social aspect is. But of course, the decoration is beautiful and inviting for the guests. We also have a lot of international guests who like it."

Santa speaks Chinese, too

Across the globe in China, pine trees are illuminated and red-suited Santas pose for portraits. "With more and more Western influence in Chinese cities, Christmas as an event, much more commercial than religious, has become common in China," said Shanghai-based media producer Jose Qian.

Although rural communities may be exempt, big cities like Shanghai and Beijing go all out.

"Christmas trees and similar decorations appear in most office buildings and shopping malls. Merry Christmas signs and Santa Claus costumes are popular in many commercial venues," Qian said, adding that classic Christmas carols can often be heard in public."

A muslim woman stands next to a Santa doll in Istanbul
Major Turkish retailers like Mudo and Boyner decorate for the occasionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Since Christmas falls near the traditional Chinese New Year between January and February, the Christmas season gives retailers a reason to launch major sales already in December. Qian said most sales are in the clothing and dining sector.

"The sales season lasts for one and half months, during which time shopping volume goes up," Qian said. "All kinds of promotions are organized and retailers obviously benefit from this."

According to Professor Kent Deng of the London School of Economics, the Christmas boom provides a lifeline to some Chinese manufacturers.

"From the producers' point of view, a lot of small and medium companies depend on Christmas for their livelihood," Deng said. In addition to producers of trinkets, the manufacturers of gadgets or popular tech gifts also pin their success on the commercialization of holidays.

Shopping malls erect massive trees, speckled with colorful baubles. Santa enthusiasts can even get their photo taken with jolly old Saint Nick. Even if the public isn't entirely clear on who the potbellied fellow is, they know that he helps make wishes come true.

"This comes from Hollywood movies," Deng said. "Here, Santa speaks Chinese, of course. But if someone looked at the photo, you wouldn't recognize that this is a non-Christian country."

In China, Christmas is celebrated not necessarily by giving gifts, says the economist, but rather, by splurging on a good meal. And this is where French, Italian and German restaurants profit. Deng says Western restaurants are some of the greatest financial beneficiaries of the Christmas season in China.

A giant blow-up doll of Santa poses Marilyn Monroe-style in Taiwan (Photo: Liu Jiang)
Santa poses Marilyn Monroe-style in Taiyuan, Shanxi province of ChinaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Chinese have a very strange reinterpretation of the Christmas celebration," Deng said. "You must go to a posh restaurant and have some foreign wine and some fine food. You are for that day, a European person." He laughs, adding, "You can appreciate they have such a romantic view about Christmas. You spend all your disposable income. You eat the best food of the year."

Multi-purpose merry wishes

And the interpretation of the Western holiday doesn't end there. "As a social norm, Chinese do send Christmas cards that say 'Merry Christmas,'" Deng said, estimating that about 100 million families will be sending cards this year. "This is a social formality. Often they link this to the New Year since it's only five days apart, so they'll copy the European style."

European or not. Christian or not, back in India, Navina Choudhury says religion isn't necessary to appreciate the holiday.

"I'm not a Christian, but my daughter has always had a Christmas tree. Santa brings gifts. It is a very important festival in India, even for non-Christians. We all celebrate it."

With additional reporting by Senada Sokullu in Istanbul.