Christmas in China: Chinese traditions, presents, money, and Santa

09.11.17
5 minute read
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Only around 1% of the population in China are Christian. Religious practice, in general, is frowned upon by the state, and the Communist Party outlaws religion altogether for its members. So you might think that Christmas in China is something of a non-event. But you’d be wrong.

In fact, Christmas, at least in some areas, is a big deal in China. While the Christian minority hold their quiet but devout celebrations, all major cities come alive with a much more commercial version of Christmas which has been enthusiastically embraced by many younger urban Chinese.

Here’s everything you need to know about Christmas in China.

How do the Chinese celebrate Christmas?

What you see at Christmas in China will be largely influenced by where you are. While businesses in the urban areas of Mainland China have realised the potential sales boost of another holiday, rural Chinese are highly unlikely to know a great deal about the festival. With a young family in a city setting, you might find a plastic Christmas tree displayed, as well as a decorated home. But with no long standing, formal traditions related to Christmas, it tends to be a more casual affair than in many other places.

In Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, Christmas is more likely to be celebrated. Macau even has 3 days of public holidays to honour the occasion.

Chinese traditions

Because mainland China has only a tiny Christian minority, there's little in the way of Christmas tradition among the majority of the population. Religion isn't promoted in Chinese society and although the country has opened and liberalised somewhat over recent years, religious practise is usually carried out in private. Chinese Christians tend to celebrate the religious significance of Christmas in a church if there's one nearby or, more commonly, in a ‘house church’. Ceremonies in house churches tend to be tolerated by the state, despite not being strictly legal. Technically, activities such as singing certain carols are also banned, although in most areas officials turn a blind eye to Christmas celebrations where they're carried out in a relatively quiet way. Any hint at evangelising, however, would not be accepted.

All that said, Macau and Hong Kong, with their colonial Portuguese and British past, celebrate Christmas in a much more recognisable way. There are public holidays, and you can expect to see activities such as church services and caroling in public.

For the mainland, Christmas Day is a regular working day for most. Among younger people, especially in the city, Christmas is seen as a good excuse to hang out with friends and shop. Stores have been quick to promote the consumerism associated with a western Christmas and you can now find plastic trees, baubles and other decorations, as well as cards and gifts, on sale. Some Chinese have criticised the increasing popularity of Christmas, suggesting that retailers are introducing western customs through the back door and diluting traditional Chinese practises. For most Chinese, however, Christmas is just another among a pretty packed calendar of festivals which are enthusiastically celebrated.

Chinese Christmas food

Among the majority of the mainland Chinese population, one unusual tradition that's caught on is the giving of apples on Christmas Eve. That’s because the Chinese word used for Christmas Eve is 平安夜 - Ping'an Ye, literally ‘peaceful night’, from a translation of the carol Silent Night. However, the Chinese pronunciation sounds very much like the word for apple, which led to apples being the symbolic gift given for Christmas Eve. In keeping with much of the development of Christmas in China, this craze has been massively commercialised as well, so now apples can be bought with messages on the skin, wrapped in cellophane, and at hugely marked up prices.

As for food on Christmas Day, this is really down to personal preference. Younger people tend to see the day as a good excuse for hanging out with friends, but this might just as likely mean a meal at McDonalds or Starbucks, as a traditional dinner. However, many international hotels in larger cities offer a more traditional Christmas dinner to guests, featuring the kind of food you might get in the US or Western Europe on Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve and Santa Claus in China

Gift giving has certainly become popular over the christmas period in China. No surprise, then, that Father Christmas, known in Chinese as 圣诞老人 - Shèngdàn Lǎo rén - makes an appearance in Chinese Christmas celebrations. In cities, some shopping centres will have a Santa’s grotto, much like in the US and Europe. In China, though, Santa’s helpers are likely to be ‘sisters’ rather than ‘elves’ - young women in colourful costumes helping with giving out gifts.

How much money do people spend on Christmas in China?

Christmas in China is a hugely commercialised affair. People give gifts to friends and loved ones - but they also buy things for themselves during the period. Shops and malls, as well as online retailers, have deep discounts and encourage spending during this time of year.

As well as Christmas, there’s ‘Singles Day’ in November - in which people buy themselves gifts as a sort of anti-Valentines Day, and another shopping extravaganza on December 12th, when online retailers offer discounts much like Cyber Monday. It’s an expensive season long before Christmas comes round. If you’re an expat living in China, you might find you need to transfer money from your home account to China, for gifts and other expenses during this festive period.

If you need to move your money between accounts based in different countries, it’s worth knowing that banks often don’t give the best deal. Even if their service is advertised as free or cheap, banks and transfer services normally add a markup to the exchange rate to make sure that they make a profit. This cost isn’t always clearly set out, and that means you could be paying more than you should.

You might find that your international transfer will be quicker and cheaper if you use a specialist service like TransferWise. TransferWise use the real exchange rate, the same one you find on Google, with no markup. There are no hidden fees and only a small fixed charge, which is clearly shown upfront.

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When does the Christmas season start in China?

There are festivals throughout the winter and spring seasons in China - so it’s pretty hard to say when one ends and another begins. From ‘Singles Day’ celebrated on November 11th, through the lucky ‘double double’ day on December 12th, there’s nearly always something to celebrate. Then you have Winter solstice, celebrated in some parts of the country, before Christmas and New Year kick in in earnest.

Important festive dates for China:

Chinese Holidays Date
Ping'an Ye 平安夜** (Christmas Eve) 24th December (Public Holiday in Macau)
Sheng Dan 圣诞 (Christmas) 25th December (Public Holiday in Macau and Hong Kong)
Chúxì 除夕 (New Year’s Eve) 31st December
Xīnnián 新年 (New Year’s Day) 1st January (Public Holiday)

The Chinese really do love their festivals and there’s something going on pretty much every week over the winter and spring period. Although Christmas might not be a traditional holiday in much of China, it’s been enthusiastically embraced by many. It can be another great excuse to hang out and buy the odd treat for yourself and others. If you’re in China for Christmas, and want to impress your Chinese friends, wish them 圣诞快乐 Shèngdàn kuàilè (Happy Christmas), as you hand over their gifts.

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