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2010 Christmas Underscores Economic Contrasts

At this time of the year, the streets of Beijing take on a uniquely western look, complete with bright lights, Christmas trees and even Santa Claus

The Christmas Holiday - a long tradition in the West, is quickly gaining a foothold in many countries. Even in countries with few Christians, the holiday which symbolizes the birth of Jesus, is finding a home among people of different cultures. But the holiday also gives insight into the tough economic times we live in.

Less than two percent of China's 1.3 billion people are Christians. But at this time of the year, the streets of Beijing take on a uniquely western look, complete with bright lights, Christmas trees and even Santa Claus.

For many Chinese, it's become a day to shop. And for others - another reason to spend time with loved ones.

One woman explains, "We get together with friends and family to celebrate Christmas, the same as we celebrate the Chinese New Year. The New year is a traditional festival for all the Chinese, but Christmas has become an important holiday for the young people."

And it's a holiday encouraged by the Chinese government - part of Beijing's plan to increase domestic consumption.

For shop owners like Chen Zhenfen, it's a welcome gift from the West. "Business during Christmas is much better than the Chinese New Year because celebrating Christmas is becoming a popular trend in China, he said. "As China is getting westernized, Christmas offerings in clubs and restaurants have become very important to customers."

But halfway around the world - in Greece, where the birth of Jesus has been celebrated for hundreds of years, this year's holiday is more subdued.

Tough austerity measures imposed by the Greek government have many consumers in the debt-choked nation - reluctant to spend.

"People are tight-fisted now," a shopper said. "Even if they want to spend, they are hesitant about doing so because they don't know what will happen tomorrow."

Others say they are trying to stay optimistic even if it means fewer presents for their loved ones.

Another shopper states, "It's difficult. But I don't like this misery either, so we are trying to spend a little bit here, a little bit there, in order to provide for everyone in the family."

On the busiest shopping street in Athens, shopkeepers say business is down 50 to 60 percent. This man says even window shoppers are hard to find.

It's a vastly different story in China, where consumers appear more eager to open their wallets for a little Christmas cheer.

"I just bought some decorations and small Christmas trees because I already have some big ones, mainly for creating a kind of Christmas atmosphere and decking the residence compound. I spent roughly one thousand yuan (about $152 US), says one shopper.

Despite the stark economic differences between these countries, it's clear that Christmas traditions are here to stay. That in hard times and in good, the warmth of lights, the merriment of song and the spirit of giving is universal - and one that transcends international and economic borders.