China has a unique way of celebrating the holiday season and diverse traditions that vary from region to region. And although only 5% of Chinese people identify as Christians1, that doesn’t mean there’s no Christmas in China. Come along as we explore Christmas in China and discuss everything from the holiday’s history to how you can spend it if you’re visiting or living abroad.
What is Christmas in China called?
In Mandarin, the official Chinese language, Christmas is called 圣诞节 (shèngdàn jié). The word consists of three characters: 圣 (shèng) is the word for “saint,” 诞 (dàn) is the word for “birth,” and 节 (jié) means “holiday” or “festival.” The common Christmas greeting in Mandarin is 圣诞快乐 (shèng dàn kuài lè), which translates to “Merry Christmas.”
When does China celebrate Christmas?
Like the rest of the world, China celebrates Christmas on December 25. But unlike many other countries, China only celebrates Christmas for one day. There’s no Boxing Day or Second Christmas Day in mainland China.
Is Christmas a public holiday?
In mainland China, Christmas isn’t a public holiday, and businesses are typically open. However, some schools give the day off as a bonus holiday.
Hong Kong and Macau both list Christmas as a public holiday. In Hong Kong, many restaurants and stores stay open, while most businesses in Macau close to allow people to celebrate with their families.
What’s Christmas like in China?
China’s Christmas traditions vary across the country, so there’s no single answer to this question—and in some areas, the holiday isn’t celebrated at all. One common theme is that Christmas isn’t necessarily a religious celebration—in fact, some Chinese people who observe the holiday aren’t aware that in other parts of the world, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
For the Chinese, Christmas is more like a carnival or Valentine’s Day—a holiday when people give gifts to their partners and plan romantic activities. Young adults may use the holiday to have parties and attend celebrations with friends.
Gift-giving gives Christmas commercial value in China, and men particularly feel pressure to spend big on gifts for their romantic partners. In 2020, 40% of Chinese men surveyed said they spent 1,000 yuan (about $145) or more on gifts. As a global center for manufacturing, China also benefits from gift-giving around the world. In fact, the Chinese media frequently says that China makes American Christmas possible.
Despite the economic boon of the season, Christmas has become controversial in China over the last two decades. Nationalists are pushing for the holiday to be banned, saying it’s an invasion by Western soft power. They warn that celebrating Christmas will cause China to lose some of its rich culture.
What Is the history of Christmas in China?
There’s some evidence that Christmas was celebrated in China during the Tang Dynasty, which ruled from 618 to 907 AD. Missionaries organized these early celebrations, and as a result, they were largely religious. Archaeologists have yet to uncover any information about the tradition continuing beyond the Tang period.
Modern records mentioning Christmas in China date back to the 1940s when The People’s Daily newspaper first began mentioning it as a time reference. For example, one article said that “a treaty was possible before Christmas.” In the decades that followed, as tensions between the U.S. and China mounted, the newspaper only mentioned Christmas in reference to the West.
In 1978, economic reforms led to warm relations with western countries. The increased contact led to the spread of Christmas symbols and traditions into Chinese popular culture, and some cities in China began decorating for the season in the 1990s. Since then, the holiday has continued to gain popularity as a secular celebration.
What are the most popular Christmas traditions in China?
Christmas traditions vary throughout China, but some have become popular throughout the country. Let’s dive into some of the most common holiday traditions in China.
In China, Santa Claus is called 圣诞老人 (shèng dàn lǎo rén). Wearing a red velvet suit trimmed in white fur, he’s highly recognizable to those familiar with the mythical figure from the West. But there is one big difference—Chinese Santa usually carries or plays the saxophone. You may also see him depicted with a French horn.
Department stores often have Santa come from the North Pole to pose for pictures with children. Sometimes, he appears with his sisters—women wearing red and white who help Santa in place of elves. In large cities, stores frequently offer gift delivery, allowing Chinese children to have presents from someone dressed as Santa delivered right to their door.
As Christmas has gained popularity, traditions surrounding Christmas foods have emerged.
Why is eating an apple on Christmas Eve a tradition?
The apple is one of the most common Christmas foods in China. As a tonal language, Mandarin has many words that mean more than one thing depending on how you pronounce them, and the word for apple is very similar to the word for peace. Because of this, the apple is a symbol of the season, and many people eat apples on Christmas Eve as a sign of peace.
What do the Chinese eat on Christmas Day?
There is no single traditional Christmas dinner in China, but it’s common for couples to go to restaurants and enjoy grand meals like Peking duck.
The fast food chain KFC advertises fried chicken as a Christmas dinner. Fried chicken is already a major Christmas tradition in Japan, and due to marketing, it’s becoming a tradition in some major Chinese cities as well.
Because of the connection between apples and the holidays, peace apples are a popular gift.
Typically, people wrap ripe apples in tulle or paper and present them to loved ones on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Couples may exchange more extravagant gifts like those presented for Valentine’s Day, and children usually receive toys just as they do in the U.S. and Europe.
The kitschy quality of commercial Christmas decorations popular in the U.S. have a big appeal in China.
Major cities have large Christmas trees covered in bright lights and ornaments and decorate their homes with wreaths, bows, and poinsettias. People also display statues and figurines of Santa Claus.
Chinese Christmas decorations do have some unique characteristics. For one thing, you won’t find nativity scenes among decorations in public or in homes. Some people also make their own ornaments out of paper.
Popular Christmas songs in China
Christmas songs in China range from versions of Western carols to modern songs popularized by famous singers and bands.
Some widely known Chinese Christmas songs include:
- 圣诞领声—”Jingle Bells”
- 平安夜—”Silent Night”
- 圣诞老人进城—”Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
- 祝你圣诞快乐—”We Wish You A Merry Christmas”
- 雪人不见了—”The Snowman Disappeared”
- 听啊! 天使高声唱—”Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
- 圣诞节—”Christmas Day” by EXO
- 初雪—“First Snow” by EXO
- 十二月的情歌—“December Love Song” by Gackt
- 2999 年的圣诞节—“Christmas in Year 2999” by Michael Wong
What are some festive things to do in China at Christmastime?
Here are some things you can do if you’re in China during the Christmas season and want to get into the holiday spirit.
Visit the Christmas Capital of the World
Yiwu, a city in the Zhejiang province, is dubbed the Christmas Capital of the World.
This city is home to hundreds of factories that manufacture the lights and decorations used to decorate homes and public spaces worldwide, and multiple public markets sell these decorations.
In Beijing and Shanghai, you can celebrate the season in a truly memorable way with SantaCon.
Every year, people dress up as Santa Claus and one of his sisters or a reindeer and then visit bars. All you do is pay a registration fee, which gets one drink ticket for each location, then enjoy food and drink specials at the bars.
Information is usually available on local event pages on social media. SantaCon is celebrated in many cities around the globe.
Tour the Harbin Ice Festival
Every year, the city of Harbin in Heilongjiang province holds an annual festival featuring breathtaking ice sculptures and dazzling Christmas lights.
In addition to checking out the sites, you can go skiing or winter swimming during the event. Typically, the event begins a few days before Christmas and runs through January.
What are some popular destinations for a Christmas holiday in China?
If you’re hoping to visit China for the holiday season or are currently living in the country and looking for a winter getaway, some top destinations to consider include:
- Harbin: A vacation in Harbin will give you a chance to explore the legendary ice festival.
- Yunnan: December is warm in the Yunnan province, and gorgeous scenery allows you to spend the holiday season enjoying the great outdoors. In the northern end of the province, the city of Cizhong Christmas holds church services with unique blends of Buddhism and Catholicism.
- Hong Kong: Hong Kong is a great destination if you want a more traditional Christmas celebration with a new twist. Much of the city is decked out in lights, and restaurants offer special meals for the season.
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