BEIJING - Christmas may have begun in the little town of Bethlehem, but now it seems to come straight out of China.
Ornaments, lights, stockings, wreaths, wrapping paper, toys, the holly and the ivy (the plastic kind) - you name it: Most of what makes the Yuletide gay for Americans is produced in China.
The world's biggest officially atheistic nation, whose human rights abuses are regularly deplored by Washington, has become almost indispensable to American celebrations of a holiday of religious origin and good cheer.
“There's something wrong with this picture,” said John Saxtan, editor in chief of a U.S. trade journal specializing in the gift industry, which is dominated by Chinese goods.
The numbers say it all. In the first eight months of this year, Americans imported $78 million in artificial Christmas trees from China, plus $535 million in ornaments to hang on them, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They also spent $211 million in Christmas lights from China to help make the season bright.
Imports of these items over the same eight-month span have shot up 85 percent in three years.
For under the tree, Americans buy $755 million worth of stuffed toys, $639 million in dolls, $32 million in electric trains, and $21 million worth of puzzles labeled “Made in China.”
“Business has been very good throughout the '90s,” said Zhang Jun, head of the Christmas merchandising section of the Dalian Handicrafts Import & Export Co. in northern China. “Our annual turnover for Christmas items is around $6 million to $8 million.”
Ms. Zhang sees nothing ironic about her country's leading role in manufacturing Christmas cheer for the West, even though she lives in a land where anyone who wants to observe a religious holiday must do so through officially approved channels.
“Whatever foreign countries need, we'll produce,” she said. “We have favorable conditions for producing handicrafts. Why not take advantage of it?”
Those “favorable conditions” can be summed up in two words: cheap labor.
With 100 million migrant workers trolling the country for jobs, China has a ready source of people eager to serve as Santa's elves.