Gilding the Apple

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Growing up in a nonreligious household in Nantong, China — a bustling city of nearly 8 million people — I didn’t celebrate Christmas until I immersed myself in the exports of Hollywood. Christmas movies were big hits in China; so were soap operas with holiday episodes dubbed in Mandarin and Mickey Mouse comic books translated from English. The images of affluence and abundance stuck in my head: the emerald-green Christmas tree with a blinking star crowning its peak, almost touching the ceiling; the colored lights twinkling and the swirling tinsel; the mountains of presents under the tree, wrapped in decorative paper and cheerful silky bows.

I’d begged my parents to set up a plastic tree in our small home. My dad, the only cook in the family, would whip up a whole Christmas dinner infused with Chinese imagination: Shanghainese borscht, a tomato-based riff on the Slavic classic that no Ukrainian would recognize; a fruit salad doused in mayonnaise, bearing an uncanny similarity to ambrosia; thinly cut steak in black-pepper sauce topped with a fried egg, a dish that arrived in China via Taiwanese chain steakhouses that sprouted in the late 1990s. Despite all the formality of decking out the table with freshly cut flowers and using mismatched forks and knives to eat, we kept our Christmas dinner relatively simple, as if these were all cultural props and we were doing our best to mimic what we saw on screen.

What we did not eat at that time was apples. Over just the past 10 years, apples have emerged as a Chinese Christmas icon: exquisitely wrapped fruit with images of Santa Claus and stenciled “Merry Christmas” greetings in cursive. Apples are everywhere: They bejewel gigantic holiday-themed installations at swanky shopping malls, are sold from the back of trucks at makeshift night markets, and sit patiently inside vending machines. There are bare-bones versions stenciled with figures of Santa Claus playing the saxophone, and more extravagant ones wrapped in red cellophane with a bow tied on top.

But why apples? Chinese people have an inclination for auspicious-sounding gifts. Christmas Eve in Mandarin is ping an ye, nomenclature that stems from the popular carol “Silent Night,” which is translated as “peaceful night.” The word for apple in Mandarin is ping guo, and some call it ping an guo, a homophone for “peace fruit.”

The variety of apples popular at Christmas is red, a color that symbolizes prosperity and good luck. Seen as an inexpensive yet meaningful way of expressing affection and love — the apples cost 10 to 20 yuan each (roughly $1.50 to $3), depending on the packaging — the younger generation in particular has embraced exchanging apples as a new holiday tradition.

After seven years abroad, I returned home in 2015 and was working in Shanghai, a quick train ride from Nantong. For Christmas that year, I went to my family home to roast a turkey in my parents’ oven with my then-boyfriend, an American who was dealing with a bout of homesickness. The sun had begun to set, illuminating the concrete jungle outside my window in a rosy afterglow. As I spread halved Brussels sprouts on a baking sheet, I realized I hadn’t packed olive oil. I threw on my puffer jacket and went for a grocery run.

The streets were business as usual, in contrast to the eerily quiet suburban Christmas Eves I’d seen in New England. The holiday spirit wasn’t quite in the air, as evidenced by the lack of the scent of pine needles and neon lights shaped like stars. There was no Salvation Army volunteer ringing bells and collecting donations. But within the walls of McDonald’s and Western casual chains, in imported Irish pubs and shopping malls, Christmas was there — in the displays of apples adorned with festive decorations and well-wishes.

In merely 10 years’ time, the enthusiasm for Western holidays transformed everyday apples into a distinctly Chinese homegrown cultural norm this time of year. At first I thought these elaborately packaged apples signaled that Chinese consumers had understood Christmas to be a commercialized holiday. Perhaps the creation of Christmas apples was simply a fusion of the West’s commercialization of the season with China’s unique linguistic and symbolic traditions. But I wasn’t there to witness the transition. Much of the country has become more sophisticated with gifting, but I reminisce about the days when gifting was more about the kindness of the gesture than seasonal formalities. It was a warm slice of fragrant shao bing flatbread, handed to me by the baker down the block on my way back from school; a dozen fresh eggs hauled from the countryside by my neighbor’s visiting grandparents.

I picked up a meticulously packaged apple at a chain convenience store: It looked like any other apple on the shelf, clean and shiny, but it lacked character. It reminded me of the chain convenience stores themselves, where the uniformed staff was polite and attentive, but no one inquired about my family nor discussed neighborhood gossip, as the family proprietors of my local corner store would have done when I was young. I felt a pinch in my gut, like I had lost something that was once dear to me. I took a pause to remember what these gentrifying, modernizing forces had replaced: the mom-and-pop bao vendors where the steam was visible from blocks away, the newsstands stuffed with daily newspapers and magazines from floor to ceiling and edge to edge, the fruit stalls where all offerings were seasonal; the list goes on.

I thought about the little girl in me that had demanded from my Chinese parents a proper Christmas celebration, all based on the images of what we’d perceived as Western, an idea they could scarcely afford. I thought about how they had stashed away their savings so they could send me abroad to experience “real Christmas,” like I wanted. I thought about what I’d missed while I was away — and how the country had moved on in my absence.

While I once felt baffled by my fellow countrypeople exchanging and devouring apples on Christmas Eve, I’ve come to appreciate the charm of this idiosyncrasy. If anything, I, along with so many lucky ones born into my generation, accelerated China’s trend toward a Western-style consumer culture, supported by my parents’ generation, who persevered through economic hardships and political turmoil to give us a life with a seemingly endless ocean of choices. The apples are a marker of this, one fueled by the spirit of giving.

My mom and dad arrived home from work right as the turkey finished resting. They were delighted by it and the Christmas spread my boyfriend and I had put out: mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, baked beans that added a touch of New England flair, bread, and apples. I’d never had turkey or Brussels sprouts before moving to America, but thanks to e-commerce and globalization, sourcing imported ingredients was easier than ever.

At the dinner table, my dad insisted on baijiu in lieu of wine and generously offered a coveted bottle of Moutai from his precious collection. He filled the miniature goblet-like baijiu glasses to the brim and asked my boyfriend, “Do Americans eat apples on Christmas Eve?” My boyfriend burst into laughter and shyly shook his head, “No, not really. Maybe in a pie.” My dad smiled, delicately clinked his little goblet against my boyfriend’s, and made a toast: “To a peaceful year ahead, and many more to come.”

Valerie Sizhe Li Stack is a food writer and editor based in the Boston area.

Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.

Copy edited by CB Owens

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