Santa’s Workshop: China

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Santa’s workshop … 19-year-old Wei works in a factory in Yiwu, China, coating polystyrene snowflakes with red powder. Photograph: Imaginechina/Rex

There’s red on the ceiling and red on the floor, red dripping from the window sills and red globules splattered across the walls. It looks like the artist Anish Kapoor has been let loose with his wax cannon again. But this, in fact, is what the making of Christmas looks like; this is the very heart of the real Santa’s workshop – thousands of miles from the North Pole, in the Chinese city of Yiwu.

Our yuletide myth-making might like to imagine that Christmas is made by rosy-cheeked elves hammering away in a snow-bound log cabin somewhere in the Arctic Circle. But it’s not. The likelihood is that most of those baubles, tinsel and flashing LED lights you’ve draped liberally around your house came from Yiwu, 300km south of Shanghai – where there’s not a (real) pine tree nor (natural) snowflake in sight.

Christened “China’s Christmas village”, Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fibre-optic trees to felt Santa hats. The “elves” that staff these factories are mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 a month – and it turns out they’re not entirely sure what Christmas is.

Wei gets through at least 10 face masks each day, trying not to breathe in the cloud of red dust. Photograph: Imaginechina/Rex

Wei gets through at least 10 face masks each day, trying not to breathe in the cloud of red dust. Photograph: Imaginechina/Rex

“Maybe it’s like [Chinese] New Year for foreigners,” says 19-year-old Wei, a worker who came to Yiwu from rural Guizhou province this year, speaking to Chinese news agency Sina. Together with his father, he works long days in the red-splattered lair, taking polystyrene snowflakes, dipping them in a bath of glue, then putting them in a powder-coating machine until they turn red – and making 5,000 of the things every day.

In the process, the two of them end up dusted from head to toe in fine crimson powder. His dad wears a Santa hat (not for the festive spirit, he says, but to stop his hair from turning red) and they both get through at least 10 face masks a day, trying not to breathe in the dust. It’s a tiring job and they probably won’t do it again next year: once they’ve earned enough money for Wei to get married, they plan on returning home to Guizhou and hopefully never seeing a vat of red powder again.

Packaged up in plastic bags, their gleaming red snowflakes hang alongside a wealth of other festive paraphernalia across town in the Yiwu International Trade Market, aka China Commodity City, a 4m sq m wonder-world of plastic tat. It is a pound shop paradise, a sprawling trade show of everything in the world that you don’t need and yet may, at some irrational moment, feel compelled to buy. There are whole streets in the labyrinthine complex devoted to artificial flowers and inflatable toys, then come umbrellas and anoraks, plastic buckets and clocks. It is a heaving multistorey monument to global consumption, as if the contents of all the world’s landfill sites had been dug-up, re-formed and meticulously catalogued back into 62,000 booths.

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The two men produce 5,000 red snowflakes a day, and get paid around £300 a month. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

The complex was declared by the UN to be the “largest small commodity wholesale market in the world” and the scale of the operation necessitates a kind of urban plan, with this festival of commerce organised into five different districts. District Two is where Christmas can be found.

There are corridors lined with nothing but tinsel, streets throbbing with competing LED light shows, stockings of every size, plastic Christmas trees in blue and yellow and fluorescent pink, plastic pine cones in gold and silver. Some of it seems lost in translation: there are sheep in Santa hats and tartan-embroidered reindeer, and of course lots of that inexplicable Chinese staple, Father Christmas playing the saxophone.

It might look like a wondrous bounty, but the market’s glory days seem to have passed: it’s now losing out to internet giants like Alibaba and Made In China. On Alibaba alone, you can order 1.4m different Christmas decorations to be delivered to your door at the touch of a button. Yiwu market, by comparison, stocks a mere 400,000 products.

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Santa hats galore … inside one of Yiwu’s Christmas showrooms. Photograph: Dan Williams/Unknown Fields

Aiming at the lower end of the market, Yiwu’s sales thrived during the recession, as the world shopped for cut-price festive fun, but international sales are down this year. Still, according to Cai Qingliang, vice chairman of the Yiwu Christmas Products Industry Association, domestic appetite is on the rise, as China embraces the annual festival of Mammon. Santa Claus, says the Economist, is now better known to most Chinese people than Jesus.

The beaming sales reps of Yiwu market couldn’t sound happier with their life sentence of eternal Christmastime. According to Cheng Yaping, co-founder of the Boyang Craft Factory, who runs a stall decked out like a miniature winter wonderland: “Sitting here every day, being able to look at all these beautiful decorations, is really great for your mood.”

It’s somehow unlikely that those on the other end of the production line, consigned to dipping snowflakes in red-swamped workshops for us to pick up at the checkout for 99p, feel quite the same way.

Source: The Guardian

Vintage Holiday Decorating

For anyone who celebrates Christmas, or embraces seasonal decorating, there’s a familiar ritual that takes place every year — whether it’s the day after Thanksgiving or soon before the first out-of-town guests arrive. It involves the taking down of boxes, the careful unpacking of items (some fragile, some not), and finally, the thoughtful display of beloved trinkets that will fill a home with festiveness for the remainder of the year. From ornaments to miniatures, Etsy is a veritable wonderland of Christmas collectibles. Here are a few of our current favorites.

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Swedish Folkloric Tomtes

Long before Americans had Santa Claus, Swedes had tomtes: garden gnome–like creatures associated with the winter solstice. After an 1881 Swedish magazine included a poem about a tomte on Christmas alongside a painting of the small folkloric figure with a long white beard and a jaunty red cap, the modern tomte was born (influenced no doubt by the rising Father Christmas craze); now he’s the one who brings gifts to Swedish children on Christmas Eve.

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Swedish Folkloric Tomtes

As such, the tomte’s incredibly popular when it comes to Christmas décor, and you can see their likenesses immortalized on linens and rendered in wood, needle felt, and even little clay sculptures — the smaller the better, says Theresa Isaksson, owner of the shop Scandivintage. “We live in an age when we are attracted to miniatures — something we can carry with us, something to care for, something which can remind us that everything must not be grand and obvious, but instead small, a little secretive, and so perhaps a little more personal,” she says. “The tomte carries a lot of personal feelings and reflections.”

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Mercury Glass

Mercury glass — which do not actually contain mercury — first rose to popularity in early 19th-century Germany as an inexpensive substitute for silver. Composed of double-walled glass filled with a silvering formula, the style, which swept Europe, was used for all sorts of housewares in the hopes that a thief would mistake it for the good stuff. Mercury glass went out of vogue with the advent of the light bulb (which eliminated any chance of a thief’s misidentification), but came back in the 1900s and swept the Christmas decor scene.

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1950’s Mercury Glass Pinecone Diorama

Colorful mercury glass ornaments, especially the dioramas, had their heydey in the 1950s and ’60s, and like many other decorative and design elements of that era, have enjoyed a revival in the last decade. Now, collectors and crafters are even combining the tiny vintage ornaments into big, statement-making showpieces, like the multicolored wreaths.

Ucagco Christmas Angel Bells

Holt Howard – Ucagco Christmas Angel Bells

While living in Sweden in the 1940s, American A. Grant Howard was struck with entrepreneurial inspiration when he saw how much the Swedes loved their Christmas decorations. When he returned home, he teamed up with two of his college buddies, brothers Bob and John Howard, and together they launched Holt Howard Ceramics.

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Holt Howard Santa Napkin Holder

Their whimsical Christmas tchotchkes — which included winking Santa mugs, seasonal cookie jars, and hand-painted ashtrays — were must-haves for hip mid-century couples. And it’s easy to draw a through line from vintage Holt Howard to the ceramics craze we’re seeing today.

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German Erzgebirge Christmas Figurine

Vintage holiday decor is the very best kind there is. Family heirlooms and hand crafted hand-me-down’s fill our homes with genuine warmth and memories.  Being surrounded by treasures, some of which we do not know their life stories, brings a deeper meaning of creating love filled traditions.  What holiday decorating traditions will you be decking the halls with this year?  Please let us know in the comments below or #FilthyTreasure to share.

For more information on Decorating with Vintage – please check out our source: Etsy.