Beyond “Made in China” being stamped on almost every toy under the tree, you wouldn’t really consider the impact of Christmas as a festival in China, indeed my childhood was almost entirely Christmas-free.
Growing up in a major city in mainland China during through the 1980s, I would hardly have been aware of this important western tradition, if it weren’t for a mother who regularly jetted off to other countries. One winter, she brought back thick, creamy beige biscuits, which I ate without knowing they were Christmas shortbreads, and a heavy purple jumper featuring rows of snowmen in red hats and yellow scarves that I often wore out in the warm southern Chinese winters, without realising what a “Christmas jumper” was. This was as much of childhood memory of Christmas as I could muster. There was certainly no tree, no turkey, only the vaguest of feelings that things were happening in the place my mother had just left, and distant expectations of proper events, like Spring festival, still a couple of months away.
When I moved to the UK, I was formally introduced to Christmas by Charles Dickens. At boarding school, the first novel I read in English was “A Christmas Carol”. With its feasts and merriment and kindness, I was looking forward to my first English Christmas. Though I have to say, the institutional attempt at a Christmas roast, topped by a sliver of Christmas Cake, wrapped in rock hard icing, may have seemed more at home with the Cratchits than the Spirit of Christmas Present.
At home, I made an effort to celebrate an English Christmas, decorating a small artificial tree, and stringing the greeting cards from my father’s multiple work associates across the living room. Sometimes we were invited to Christmas lunches by the cards’ senders. Other years we celebrated Christmas Day with a large home-cooked meal, but of fish, pork, and other dishes cooked in Chinese style. Not a sprout to be seen.
One part of Christmas, which did reach me though, was the music. I think probably the first time I can remember feeling “The Christmas Spirit”, was with the school choir, both at services and performing for charities, the mixture of carols, hymns, and Handel’s beautiful Messiah. Now, with my English partner, we celebrate Christmas with their family, friends, and are developing a tautology of new traditions.
I don’t seem to be the only Chinese person embracing Christmas either. China has increasingly embraced Christmas as a time for celebration. Beyond the growing number of Chinese Christians, for whom Christmas is part of their devotion and faith, there are other reasons why the Western winter festival has become so popular.
Media is one aspect, with American films depicting classic Christmas pastimes, such as trimming the tree, hanging up stockings, and stopping terrorists at the Nakatomi Plaza. Globablization is another, with cities like Shenzhen and Yiwu, producing the bulk of the world’s Christmas decorations, the streets of China aren’t short of elaborate LED displays. In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you’ll find a host of restaurants serving Christmas dinners, Christmas markets in big shopping malls, and multiple iterations of mulled wine. Although many of these events and outings are expensive luxuries, reserved mainly for Western expats, and a local middle class who want to be seen indulging in western activities. There are also plenty of lights, fake icicles and Santa hats available at general stores, as well as winter flower markets, where you can pick up trees and other seasonal decorations.
There aren’t a huge number of traditional Chinese festivals in winter and this Western festival has become a winter celebration to tide over from the recently invented Singles Day on 11.11, minor winter rituals of Dongzhi (Winter Solstice) and Laba, to Spring Festival. Whereas traditional festivals have their very established customs, for the majority of Chinese people, Christmas in China is a time when people can indulge in a little bit of a shopping spree or a bit of silly, daring fun, whether it’s a girls’ night out in fancy dress, or young couples having a romantic dates, and may be their first night together, giving the Christmas stocking an entire new meaning.
Moreover, a fat-bearded man in a red gown isn’t that far from a festive Chinese deity. Over the last decade, Christmas in China has evolved a few of quirky customs of its own. For one, Santas in China tend to travel in groups to deliver presents. The ones in shopping malls are often accompanied by human female helpers dressed in bright, colourful clothing, rather than reindeers and elves. More bizarrely, displays of Santa often have him playing the saxophone, it seems, for no other reason than that this instrument was associated with people’s ideas of the West. Whilst they have still not quite taken to Christmas pudding, you’ll find a nice selection of cakes in local flavours like taro, often topped with a cherry tomatoes.
The Chinese would pretty much embrace any opportunity of gift-giving. A rather charming one has come into being for Christmas Eve. Because Christmas Eve is called 平安夜 Píng’Ān Yè in Hanyu, meaning the Night of Peace, many are giving gifts of apples, for their Chinese name 苹果 píngguo is a homonym of 平安 píng’ān, meaning “safe” or “peaceful”.
Santa now has a second home, where most of the toys are made. At Beiji Cun (North Pole Village) in Mohe, Heilongjiang (north-east China), you can go site-seeing, ice-skating and also, visit the Christmas Village. Resorts like Gubei, the famous watering town in Miyun, near Beijing, have opened to Christmas in recent years, with markets, parades, hilltop carols to supplement its more traditional attractions of canal, the Great Wall, ancient dye shops and distilleries. And on the first of January, you can attend the temple fair there to prepare for your next big celebration, Chinese New Year
The only problem with celebrating both though, is having to be careful not to end up sporting Santa’s little round belly too!
Originally published in 2015, and last updated 2022
Posted in Culture and tagged china, Chinese, christmas, culture, customs, festival, tradition, winter