Why Does Santa Play a Saxophone?

Mark Fisher from the Washington Post reported on eight fascinating facts on Christmas in China, which included a ‘war on Christmas’ and Santa’s sisters. Fisher also reports on why Santa Claus in China is always depicted playing a saxophone:

The nature of Christmas in China is fascinating, as I explored in an article yesterday, but it can also be baffling. In my post on eight fascinating facts about Christmas in China, number six was a trend that has long puzzled me: Chinese depictions of Santa Claus, of which there are a great many, very often portray him as playing the saxophone. There are posters of sax-playing Santa, cardboard cut-outs, plastic figurines, mall mannequins, all jamming on the sax.

It turns out that I’m not the only one curious about this trend: it also seems to puzzle a number of Chinese. Beijing-based journalist Helen Gao (who authored afantastic Atlantic article on Christmas in China) emailed that Sina.com, a widely-read Chinese news website, had translated my article into Chinese, changing the headline to “Foreign Media Looks at China: Confusions on Why Santa Plays Saxophone.” Sina also deleted a sentence where I had noted China’s persecution of Christians and an entire section on the Taiping Rebellion. Perhaps even worse, they did not provide their many readers a link back to the Washington Post site.

The Sina.com translation of my article received 400 responses, many of them debating the question of why Chinese Santas so often carry saxophones. Out of all those, Helen writes, “no one seems to know the answer.” When she emailed again, 30 minutes later, the number of responses had almost doubled to 700. By contrast, the original Washington Post blog item has received seven comments.

Helen’s theory echoes one of my commenters, mlouisa70394, who suggests it may have to do with Chinese perceptions of the saxophone as romantic and cool. Helen writes, “My guess is that it perhaps has to do with the fact that saxophone is obviously an instrument with a Western origin, which fits Santa’s image, and is portable so Santa can make Christmas music anywhere he goes. Sound like enough reason for Chinese to lump the two together?” One of the Sina.com commenters, according to Helen’s translation, joked that it could be worse: “At least our Santa isn’t playing erhu!”

In another article Fisher speculates former US president Bill Clinton is responsible for the saxophone playing Santa. From The Washington Post:

I would like to add the theory that President Bill Clinton may be partly to blame for this trend. Christmas became popular in China in large part because the government — as it liberalized the economy and some social restrictions against religion in the early 1990s — tolerated its spread. Christianity was and still is restricted, but the version of Christmas popular in China is more about shopping and fun Western culture. Those are two things that Beijing allowed to flourish in Chinese cities, particularly after former leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “southern tour” to open up some southern cities to the world. And what could have been a better symbol of hip Western culture, circa 1992 and the immediate years after, than presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s June 1992 appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” where he played Heartbreak Hotel on a tenor sax while wearing sunglasses. That moment, of course, was a cultural touchstone of the early 1990s. As Chinese culture started to open up to the West and Chinese consumers started to buy up Western stuff, it certainly seems possible that the sax-playing Clinton, still in the zeitgeist, could have gotten mixed up with the Santa depictions.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that China deliberately copied Clinton’s Arsenio Hall appearance in its Santa depictions. If there even is a connection, probably what happened is that someone somewhere in China in the early 1990s, as Christmas became popular, put out a saxophone-playing Santa. The depiction might have resonated with perceptions of the saxophone as particularly Western and cool, which would have been heightened in part by Clinton’s much-broadcast appearance. The tradition was brand new to many Chinese, after all, so it would have been especially easy for the association of Santa and saxophone to form.

Or maybe there was no connection, and the saxophone spread simply by coincidence, or because some early importer in Shanghai or Beijing liked it, or some other theory. But the mere possibility is a reminder of how recently China opened itself to Western culture, and of how those customs can change and shape beyond prediction in their first year.

Aside from images of Santa Claus, Pope Benedict XVI called for freedom in China in his Christmas address, the New York Times reports:

He also addressed China, where in recent weeks the Vatican has been increasingly at odds with the government over the ordination of bishops, who cannot hold office without approval from the authorities, to the dismay of the Vatican.

“May the King of Peace turn his gaze to the new leaders of the People’s Republic of China for the high task which awaits them,” Benedict said. “I express my hope that, in fulfilling this task, they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each, in such a way that they can help to build a fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people and of the whole world.”

Aggravating tensions, the Chinese Catholic Bishops Council, a government entity, stripped Thaddeus Ma Daqin, 45, the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, of his title this month, according to Catholic Web sites that cited sources in the Chinese church.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.