Billions of people around the globe celebrate Christmas. But do the Chinese?
The short answer is ‘yes’. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
In this festive article, I’m going to share with you what a typically Chinese Christmas looks like, whether the Chinese celebrate Christmas in a religious sense, some fun facts about Christmas in China, and a whole lot more.
Use the menu below to jump to the part you want to know about, or read it all!
Do Chinese celebrate Christmas?
Chinese people celebrate Christmas in a loose sense.
Cities and big stores are decorated with Christmas decorations, many people recognize and love Santa Claus, and there is a general buzz at this time of year.
There are even some emerging Christmas traditions in China, even though the locals have only been introduced to the concept of Christmas since the 1980s.
However, Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas from a religious perspective, and most people aren’t aware of the numerous Western traditions or story behind Christmas.
I’ll talk more about this further down.
What does a Chinese Christmas look like?
Each year, Christmas in China gets bigger. Chinese people love a lot of foreign customs, especially ones like Christmas which are popular and exciting.
For the Chinese, Christmas means shopping. While it’s not as big as Singles Day in November, there are still some great bargains at the shops and online.
The most popular shopping day is Christmas Eve, but sales generally continue for at least a few days.
Cities are adorned with lots of decorations, flashing lights, Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus.
I’ve spent Christmas in China before. I was actually shocked seeing people wearing flashing devil horns! Anything goes in China at Christmas, especially if it’s cheesy.
What do Chinese people do at Christmas?
They like having fun and getting out and about, despite the cold weather at this time of year.
Some activities Chinese people might do at Christmas include:
- Go shopping
- Look at the Christmas displays and light shows
- Enjoy a meal together
- Visit a Christmas market
- Go to karaoke or a cinema.
There aren’t really any traditional activities that take place, apart from the relatively small number of Christians who may discreetly visit a church.
How do Chinese families celebrate Christmas?
Christmas in China isn’t really about spending time with your family. That’s the Lunar New Year.
But families do get excited about all the decorations and lights, and many will take their children into the cities for activities, to walk around, and to go shopping.
When is Christmas in China?
It’s the same as everywhere else. Christmas Eve is December 24 and Christmas Day is December 25.
Christmas is not a public holiday in mainland China, so all the shops and businesses are open. However, there is a public holiday in Hong Kong and Macau due to the European influence.
You can find out more about Chinese holidays here.
December and January are exciting times in China
Christmas is the start of an exciting time in China, with New Year’s Eve not long after.
While New Year’s Eve pales in comparison with China’s Lunar New Year, Chinese people still know about the day and many celebrate it. There are fireworks in many cities across the country.
Then, in January or February (depending on the year), Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year. So, for a few months, the country is abuzz.
Do Chinese children believe in Santa Claus?
Santa Claus is universally recognizable, and this is especially the case in China.
There’s even a word in Chinese for Santa Claus, which is shèngdàn lǎorén (the characters are 圣诞老人). It literally means ‘Christmas Old Person’.
Chinese kids don’t really know much about Santa or the historical anecdotes, e.g. Saint Nick putting presents in kids’ stockings centuries ago.
They just see him as a fun Western tradition. They don’t ‘believe’ in him as such.
Chinese Santa plays the saxophone
If you’ve ever been to China, you may have noticed that Chinese Santa plays the saxophone.
The origins of this are unknown, though some believe that when China opened up to the rest of the world a few decades ago, the Chinese saw the saxophone as an interesting Western thing, and naturally merged the two.
Others believe it has to do with former President of the United States, Bill Clinton, who famously played the saxophone in the race to become the president.
Again, it’s believed that the Chinese saw this image as being very Western, and thus combined it with the foreign tradition of Santa.
Christmas in China traditions
Even though Christmas is relatively new in China, a few traditions are emerging.
You can buy apples in China that are decorated or covered in festive wrapping. Known as Christmas apples, young people like to give these to their partners or friends as a small token gift.
In Mandarin, the first syllable of the word ‘apple’ (píngguǒ) is the same as the first syllable as Christmas Eve (píngān), which literally means ‘peace night’.
So, by giving an apple you are wishing someone a safe and peaceful year.
Most locals don’t know that this Christmas tradition actually started in their own country.
Gift-giving and trees
Chinese kids don’t receive a sackful of presents on Christmas Day.
However, young adults in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai may give small gifts to each other. And some might even have a small plastic Christmas tree in their apartment.
Christmas has no religious meaning in China
Most Chinese people aren’t aware of the religious meaning of Christmas, even though Christmas in Mandarin (圣诞节or shèngdàn jié) translates as Holy Birth Festival.
It’s simply an opportunity to enjoy a mainstream international celebration.
In China, you won’t see typical Western Christmas images and decorations like angels or the Three Wise Men. And you certainly won’t see people going to church.
Having said that, you will hear Christmas carols in all the big stores. But most people won’t understand the meaning of the lyrics and their religious background.
As an officially atheist country, some local authorities have tried to crack down on the increasing popularity of Christmas and Western customs. But for most Chinese, Christmas is just another fun day on the calendar.
How do you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Chinese?
It’s Shèngdàn jié kuàilè or in Chinese characters: 圣诞节快乐!
And, if you want to learn how to sing some Christmas songs in Chinese, check out this website.
What else is unique about Christmas in China?
Here are six fun facts:
1. Store clerks are dressed in costumes
You may see people working in stores dressed in holiday-themed costumes.
2. An estimated 1% of people are Christians
Although China is an atheist country, it’s estimated that around 1% of Chinese people are Christians. Fervent Christians worship privately though.
3. People don’t send Christmas cards
While many people in the West still send Christmas cards in the post, you won’t find this in China.
4. Most of the world’s decorations are made in one Chinese city
The decorations on your tree probably come from the city of Yiwu, eastern China.
5. You won’t see Mrs Claus or the elves
In China, Santa’s helpers are likely to be his ‘sisters’ rather than elves or his own wife!
6. Christmas is bigger in the cities
Rural areas aren’t big on Christmas, and the older generation don’t know much about it.
Heading to China soon?
Then make sure you check out the blog I wrote about the best places to visit in China. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Embrace a different kind of Christmas
As you can see, Chinese Christmas is uniquely different.
It’s all about the commercial side and shopping, and admiring the bright lights and decorations in the big cities.
While the tradition is growing, Christmas in China is a fairly new concept. It’ll be interesting to see how it evolves over the years.
Now that you know how the Chinese celebrate Christmas, see the 10 things that will shock you about Christmas in China!
Main image credit: PR Image Factory on Shutterstock.