How Much Did Your Christmas Cost? Meet Santa's 'Elves' In Yiwu, China

How Much Did Your Christmas Cost? Meet Santa's 'Elves' In Yiwu, China

While we all deck the halls with boughs of holly, adorn Santa hats and hang jingling bells on our trees, thoughts of merriment and joy flood our heads along with the soothing rhythm of carols. Amidst that festive spirit, the last thought that would probably cross your mind is the origin of each glitter coated ball and shiny bauble. But if you did in fact trace where all our decorations come from, it would land you in the Chinese city of Yiwu.
“The market is the town. Other towns are far away. It takes time for products to get there. Here, it’s always Christmas,” said Mrs. He, a seller at the market.
Producing approximately 60 percent of the world’s Christmas paraphernalia, from Santa-themed ornaments to baubles, bells and everything else Christmas, this town 300 km south of Shanghai is Santa’s real workshop. While its products coated in tinsel-dust invoke an immediate sense of happiness, this factory is not as jolly as can be. Working 12 hours a day, the ‘elves’ in this factory spend their time inhaling glue and crimson dust from the ornaments they piece together, and most of the work is done by hand, relying more on manual labour than automated production.

Image Source: Tim Maughan, BBC

The entire complex of Yiwu’s market is divided into five districts--a huge area by any standards, and is primarily wholesale in nature. It was knighted by the UN as the ‘largest small commodity wholesale market in the world’. Within the walls of the manufacturing units, BBC reported that the workers are mostly women under the age of 20, lined up with bows, lanterns, and glue guns alike. The air is thick with chemicals, fumes and the scent of warm plastic, and masks are all that protect the labour force. As this factory truly embodies the commercial aspect of Christmas, it’s disconcerting to note that most of these December decorations are actually produced in August, crafted using machinery that can be categorised as vintage. “We’re told that by the end of September, Christmas manufacturing will have stopped, and the factory will have switched to making Easter and Valentine’s Day gifts and trinkets. After that, it’s Halloween decorations for the lucrative American market. Then, by late spring, it’s Christmas time again. As long as the world wants to celebrate whatever and whenever event it cares to choose, China will be there to be its ultimate party supplier,” wrote Tim Maughan for BBC.
As this photography series showcases the ins and outs of this red-and-white factory, China--the land of mass production and economies of scale--is literally manufacturing and selling Christmas. Diwali time insinuates large, heart-felt debates about sweat shops in India with child labourers producing fire crackers by hand for poor wages in terrible conditions, and while that is a very important conversation to have, it isn’t the only one. The commercialisation of festivities and the concept of ‘Hallmark Holidays’ entitle factories to run on cheap labour, long working hours and ancient machinery to give you the best competitive price. While we truly appreciate the merriment and joy of the holiday season, and in no way mean to diminish the festivities enjoyed by many across the world, we would still like to initiate a dialogue that begs the questions: How much does your Christmas cost?

Feature image courtesy of Reuters

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