The Embarrassing Story of the Chinese Town Behind Your Christmas

Santa’s real workshop isn’t at the North Pole, it’s in a factory in China. And the least we can say is, it is lacking of the holiday cheer.

Christmas lights and decorations are great, but where they are made, not so great. Look on that plastic Santa Claus or Rudolph figurine that is sitting in your yard, and you will probably find that it is made in China. That is because Yiwu, a city 300 kilometers out of Shanghai, makes roughly 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations in some 600 factories.

Christmas decorations being made at a factory in Yiwu city, Zhejiang province, China - 15 Dec 2014

It is a pretty depressing work environment, too. No elves singing Christmas carols, but instead Chinese workers joylessly assembling plastic trees and spraying ornaments with so much red paint that by the end of their shift it looks like a murder scene. The staff is mainly composed of migrant laborers, working 12 hours a day for $300-$400 a month. Ironically, most of them are not completely sure what Christmas is.


The photos were taken by photographer Toby Smith with design studio Unknown Fields Division to help give the rest of the world some perspective on who makes the products they are buying. Suffice to say, wearing only a paper mask and working with that much paint can’t be good for one’s lungs. BBC writer Tim Maughan traveled to Yiwu’s factories and described the 12-hour working shifts as his “worst Christmas nightmare.”


“Upstairs is the plastic moulding room, mainly staffed by young men, stripped to the waist because of the heat. The air here is thick with fumes, the smell of chemicals and warm plastic,” Maughan writes. “The men feed plastic pellets from Samsung-branded sacks into machines to be melted down, and then pressed into moulds to make toy snowmen and Father Christmases. It’s repetitive, and potentially dangerous, as the workers must constantly reach inside the large presses.”


As fun as Christmas is, these photos force you to think about all the junk we buy for the holidays we don’t really need. An alternative option could be to skip out on those cheap holiday decorations from now on, and only buy something made in the United States, even if it means spending a little more money.

Just a thought.





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