The Politics of Christmas Trees in China and Germany

We have a Christmas tree. This might not sound special, but in Shenzhen, a city of
15 million, we might even be the only ones who do.

Okay. It’s not really a tree.It’s two steel rods fitted together, covered by branches
and needles of green plastic. But it gets the job done.

Our plastic companion is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, he’s a hybrid, a hyper-Christmas-tree – he has both fir and pine tree branches, as if his creators tried to squeeze the essence of all possible Christmas conifers into his tiny 1.50 meter frame. Second, he is covered in everything you could possibly think of as Christmasy – bells, baubles, pinecones (the only thing organic about the whole contraption), snowflakes, a star of Bethlehem, even a snowman. And finally, he doesn’t just glow, but glints, radiates (as if emanating Chistmas), twinkling in a whole range of colours, evoking inappropriate associations ranging from Red Alert over E.T. to Star Wars in its attempt to be Christmas itself.

What this all points to is that Christmas and its symbols function as a fetishized ‘essence’(think of phrases such as ‘the Christmas spirit’ for example). This is not a
particularly controversial thing to say: it is not the tree that we love but what it signifies: an elusive, imprecise and ultimately undefinable set of family and social (originally religious) values, feelings, atmospheres and impressions. What is more important is the class politics of this Christmas ‘spirit’ contained within the tree.

In terms of what we might call German Christmas tree prestige (or GCTP), I have to
admit that this year we’ve hit rock bottom. We Germans like it subdued and low-key. Hence, a prestige-pregnant (to borrow a German expression) Christmas tree should be:

  1. Real. This is the most important point. And I mean “real” as in “alive and kicking until I came by the other day and chopped it down with a logging axe”
  2. Modestly decorated. We’re talking five to eight baubles plus eight to ten real candles plus a     select few angels and other figurines, made of cloth or straw. Okay, and a star on top is also fine. But no things plastic, God forbid!
  3. Tall. If it doesn’t leave a stain on the ceiling, there’s definitely something wrong with it.
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We don’t usually say it out loud, but in Germany there exists a hushed-up hierarchy only brought into visibility at Christmas but clearly hidden under the surface of society all year round, a complex class system into the slots of which all members of society can be conveniently fitted: Let’s call it the GCTP pecking order.

On top, we find the true traditionalist Christmas aficionado’s dream, a proud, majestic Caucasian fir, hand-logged, sparsely decorated with real candles and family heirlooms going back five generations. From their noble perch, these kings of Christmas look down upon the next level, who do have a real tree of sorts, possibly a dwarf pine or lowly spruce. They did not chop it down themselves, though, but bought it in a freezing lot off someone more manly than themselves. Also, they do not have the means or aesthetic sensibility to go for real candles – fairy lights will have to do for them. They know it’s not cool, but what can they do? Despise those even lowlier than themselves, that’s what! At the very bottom of the pile writhe the dregs of Christmas – the PVC tree, smothered by a mountain of cheap plastic trinkets, choked by tinsel, strangulated by Christmas lights glowing in various garish colours. In other words: Our tree.

Here we see that the richer you are, the closer you get to the apparently ‘authentic’
experience of Christmas, with its natural furs and traditional roots. At the bottom end of the financial ladder is a copy of a tree with no roots at all, which those with a ‘real’ tree see as a false imitation of what they have. At Christmas, ostensibly a time of equality, the deep prejudice of our social world makes is presence felt in the essence of our trees.

Being the only ones with a tree in Shenzhen we were aware of what we don’t have to
deal with in China, highlighting the problematic politics of the Christmas Tree in Europe.

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