We all know that Christmas is celebrated by billions of people around the world.
But is Christmas in China a 'thing'? Do Chinese people celebrate Christmas?
The short answer is yes, though it's celebrated in different ways.
Christmas in China means shopping
For most Chinese people, there is no religious meaning attached to Christmas. Instead, Christmas in China means shopping!
Large shopping malls are open late to cash in on the Christmas craze, and carols can be heard playing in the stores.
Many retailers even have sales staff dressed in Santa Claus costumes.
Kitsch is in, tradition is out
Chinese people love the kitsch element of Christmas.
You'll see plenty of Christmas trees, bright decorations and flashing lights in all the big cities.
Christmas tree in Beijing, outside a shopping mall.
Kids love being brought into town to experience the excitement of the festival (they don’t have their own tree or get presents from Santa Claus).
As coined by The Washington Post, Christmas is treated more like Saint Patrick's Day or Valentine's Day.
In other words, it’s a great day for going out with friends, not for staying in with family, as we do in the West.
Why do Chinese people celebrate Christmas?
China’s government is officially atheist. So why do Chinese people celebrate Christmas, even just in a shopping sense?
As the Chinese economy started to open up a few decades ago, many Western traditions, trends and ideas started to influence Chinese culture. Christmas was one of them.
However, China only took on certain parts of this tradition, like Christmas trees and the concept of Santa Claus. It then added its own commercial flair to it.
The result is Christmas with Chinese characteristics.
Going shopping at Christmas is a typically Chinese characteristic.
When Chinese people celebrate Christmas, they’re not celebrating it in a religious sense. In fact, most people aren’t aware of the history of Christmas or the religious aspect.
To many Chinese, particularly the younger generation, it doesn’t matter whether a tradition is Western or Chinese.
It’s simply an opportunity to enjoy a mainstream international celebration.
Saxophone-playing Santa Claus
One of the unique aspects about Chinese Christmas is saxophone-playing Santa Claus.
It's believed that this idea started when China opened up to the rest of the world.
The Chinese saw the saxophone as a very Western musical instrument, so naturally paired it up with the foreign concept of Santa Claus.
Santa playing the sax is uniquely Chinese.
Christmas in China also means apples
In Mandarin, the word ‘apple’ (pronounced píngguǒ) sounds similar to ‘peace’ (píngān).
Due to this similarity, and in keeping with the Christmas tradition of gift-giving, some Chinese people give apples to their friends.
Christmas apples are wrapped in decorative paper and sold at markets and stores.
This is a relatively new phenomenon embraced by the younger generation.
Is Christmas a public holiday in China?
Unlike Western countries, Chinese people have to work during Christmas. It’s not a public holiday in China.
However, it’s a different story in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
Christmas Day and the first weekday after Christmas are public holidays in Hong Kong, while Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are observed in Macau.
If you’re teaching in mainland China, you might enjoy a day off for Christmas. It depends on the contract you’re on.
Christmas is not a public holiday in mainland China.
When is the most popular time to celebrate Christmas?
Christmas Eve is the most popular time to celebrate.
Cities are abuzz on December 24 as people catch up with friends, share a meal and, of course, go shopping.
How do you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Mandarin Chinese?
In pinyin it’s shèngdàn jié kuàilè or in Chinese characters:圣诞节快乐!
It’s not all tinsel and holly
In some places in China, Christmas celebrations have been banned by the country’s Communist authorities.
As reported in The South China Morning Post, 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.
Similarly, the Youth League at Shenyang Pharmaceutical University in Liaoning province banned student groups from organising on-campus events to mark Christian festivals such as Christmas to “build cultural confidence”.
Meanwhile in Hengyang, the second largest city in Hunan province, celebrating Christmas is not only forbidden for members of the party but, according to an official Weibo account, members of the public are “banned from occupying streets for parties and celebrations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day”.
Foreigners can enjoy a traditional feast
Foreign teachers in China wanting to enjoy a traditional Christmas feast shouldn’t have a problem.
Many hotel restaurants and Western-style restaurants offer a Christmas lunch or dinner (or both), though it’s worth shopping around as quality and price can vary. A buffet-style meal could easily set you back 300 yuan (US$40).
If you prefer making the Christmas meal yourself, most of the trimmings can be picked up from foreign stores like Walmart, Metro and Carrefour.
However, as you’re unlikely to have an oven you'll have to give the hot turkey a miss!
Have you spent Christmas in China? What was it like? Share your story below.