Only around 1% of people in China are Christians, so historically Christmas has not been very well known or important, and it is not a national holiday. However, it has been gradually gaining popularity in mainland China over the last two decades and in large cities there are Christmas trees, lights and other decorations. In fact in the biggest cities it has been a commercial success, although it is still celebrated quite differently to in the West.
1. Christmas as a religious celebration
Although most Chinese people don’t know that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, or even relate any religious significance to the holiday, those who do follow the Christian faith in China tend to celebrate it religiously, sometimes even more so than in the West. In fact, many of China’s Christians celebrate Christmas as the top event of the year, above even Chinese New Year, and they prepare songs and activities weeks beforehand.
Christians in China celebrate in various ways; they attend special church services such as Midnight Mass, which are usually very busy, and sing carols at home (often using the ever popular karaoke machine), despite the fact that few understand them or know about the Christmas Story. Jingle Bells is a popular Christmas song in China. On Christmas Eve there are choral performances and the congregation puts on dance and drama performances. Christmas Eve is called ‘Peaceful Evening’ (Ping’an Ye from the translation of the carol ‘Silent Night’).
2. Friendly get-togethers
More non religious people who celebrate the Christmas holiday in China usually have get-togethers with friends and family, either in their houses, restaurants or bars, or in karaoke cafés. It is a fun occasion with decorations and music, and for young Chinese couples it is seen as a romantic holiday where they can exchange gifts and date.
3. Gift giving
Although gifts are generally not given at Christmas in China, there are grottos in shopping centres just like in Europe and America where Father Christmas, or ‘Shen Dan Lao Ren’ (Old Christmas Man) hands out gifts to children. However, these are usually opened the same day as there is no tradition of waiting for Christmas Day to open presents. Workers delivering post also sometimes dress up as Father Christmas when delivering letters before Christmas.
There is an unusual apple giving tradition which has evolved in China, as Ping in the word ‘apple’ sounds like the word ‘peace’ in Mandarin, which is used for Christmas Eve (‘Peaceful Evening’), so people give and eat apples, particularly on Christmas Eve. Apples are sold wrapped in coloured paper with Chinese messages printed on the apple skin such as ‘love’, ‘peace’ and love hearts. Christmas cards can be difficult to find in China, but they are increasingly available in big cities and online. E-cards are WeChat messages are popular ways of greeting each other.
Only a few people in China have a Christmas tree, and it is normally a plastic one. They are often decorated with paper chains, paper flowers, and paper lanterns and are sometimes called a tree of light rather than a Christmas tree. However for most people the most likely place they will see one is in shopping centres rather than at home.
Nowadays, many of the larger hotels and some Western restaurants offer traditional Christmas dinners. However, many traditional Western Christmas foods are still difficult to find in China: Brussels sprouts, Christmas puddings and turkeys. However, Internet shopping has made it easier, as well as import stores in the bigger cities. Many large supermarkets, and chains like Walmart, offer some of the ingredients for a Christmas meal and there are such things as Christmas markets in some Chinese cities like Beijing.
Happy Christmas! / Sheng Dan Kuai Le! (Mandarin) / Seng Dan Fai Lok! (Cantonese)