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Celebrating Christmas in China

by Daniel Maxwell – Dec 15th, 2019

For many of the 900,000 expats living in China , the upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays are a time to take a well-deserved break, catch up with loved-ones and enjoy some traditional festivities. But how popular is Christmas in China? How is this most western of festivals celebrated? And where in China is the best place to get in the festive mood?

Well firstly, Christmas is not an official holiday in mainland China (although it is a holiday in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) so things won’t come to a complete standstill in the way they do in Europe and North America. Nevertheless, Christmas doesn’t go uncelebrated in China, it’s just that things are done a little differently from the traditional celebrations in the West.

The most obvious place you’ll notice Christmas in China is at the shopping malls and along the shopping districts of China’s largest cities. On the streets around commercial districts, you’ll find Christmas trees, festive lights, Father Christmases and glittering decorations. In Shanghai, generally regarded as China’s most international city, you can even discover Christmas markets which are not dissimilar to those found in European cities. For expats looking for a taste of home, a visit to one of these markets may be the most authentic Christmas festivities you’ll find in China.

Despite having huge Christmas trees, elaborate lighting and jovial Santas, Christmas in China is distinctly different to Christmas elsewhere because it is celebrated more as an occasion to hang out with friends, or celebrate time with a loved-one. Typical ways to enjoy Christmas include catching a movie, shopping, ice skating, eating out or visiting a karaoke bar. 

Many young Chinese adults consider Christmas a romantic holiday and a time for couples to exchange gifts. The way Christmas is celebrated in China, makes the holiday more similar to Saint Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day.

Interestingly, one of the most popular Christmas gifts is an apple. In Mandarin Chinese, the word “apple” 苹果 sounds similar to “Christmas Eve” 平安夜. Christmas Apples with decorative wrappings, holiday messages, and images of Santa Claus are commonly found at this time of year.

Another unusual Christmas icon you’ll see around China is Santa Claus playing a saxophone. Not sure if this is how Santa spends his free time, but for some reason Santa is closely associated with this instrument and you’ll see saxophone playing Santas in many shopping malls!

While Christmas apples, Christmas trees and Father Christmas with a saxophone may be easy to find in China’s metropolises, Christian symbols such as nativity scenes, church services and carol singers, are far rarer sights to behold. In fact, the link between Christmas, the Christian religion and the birth of Jesus Christ is not commonly known to many in China.   

It seems China has successfully adopted the commercial and celebratority aspects of Christmas while managing to disassociate the origins of the festival. Deliberate or not, the holiday’s religious connotations have been lost and as Christmas in China becomes more popular, it also becomes less Christian.  As Max Fisher explains, this has created a fascinating Chinese contradiction: a booming business and ultra-popular holiday in the world’s leading Communist and officially non-religious state.’

Like many symbols of Western life, the Christmas holidays have fallen foul of China’s zealous censors and in certain cities the holidays have been cancelled.

In 2017, members of the Communist Party’s Youth League at the University of South China in Hunan province were asked to sign a code of conduct which told them not to participate in Christmas-related celebrations, 

Communist Party members must be role models in a biding to the faith of communism. [Members are] not allowed to have superstitions and blindly follow the opium of Western spirits,” 

Just last year, Christmas trees, lights and decorations were complete removed from one shopping mall in Nanyang within 24 hours as local officals banned the Western festival. 

So far this year, it appears Chinese officlals have eased off on their ‘war on Christmas’ (probably too busy engaged with the US ‘trade war‘) and so visitors need not worry about missing out on some last minute festive shopping.

And if anyone does find out why Santa is playing a saxophone, please share your answer below!