For Chinese people, the most important event of the year is Spring Festival. They save most of their partying for late January or early February, depending on when Chinese New Year falls – fireworks, firecrackers, hong bao, family feasts and treats for the children. However, in recent years, celebrating Christmas has become more and more popular, especially in the big cities. In Hong Kong, the Taoist festival Ta Chiu falls on the 27th December, nicely coinciding with Christmas, so the two are celebrated side by side. In Shanghai, Nanjing Lu and Huaihai Lu are already awash with festive lights, and many restaurants are advertising Yuletide specials. But why is Christmas so popular here? And how do Chinese people celebrate it?
Photo: Andrew Turner
Despite there being around one million Christians in China, Christmas isn’t a public holiday. Disgruntled expats have to trudge into work on December 24th and 25th, unless they can wangle a couple of extra days’ leave from their bosses. But in most cities, Christmas spirit abounds, and not just in Western communities. Cynics would put this down to an attempt by business owners to cash in; Westerners away from home will think nothing of shelling out big bucks to recreate some festive spirit, and locals eager to get involved in the seasonal joys will become consumers too.
For the younger generation, the influence of the West looms large, especially since American movies and TV shows are part of their daily lives. They see Christmas on television and they want a piece of the action themselves. Who wouldn’t want another day of tasty food, family fun, and gift giving (and receiving)? Also, the colour associated with Christmas is red, which means luck and prosperity in China.
Nina, 25, lives in Shanghai but is originally from Xiamen. She says “Obviously, Christmas isn’t a traditional Chinese festival. For Chinese people, we celebrate it only to have an extra party in the year! Living in Shanghai, it’s easy to have the full Christmas experience.”
So what do Chinese people do on the 25th December? It varies from household to household. For many people, the day comes and goes with little fanfare; for some, especially those with children, muslin stockings are hung up in the hope that dun che lao ren will visit during the night. The Chinese Santa Claus, also known as Sheng dan lao ren (圣诞老人), looks pretty much the same as the original – red clothes, portly physique, and big white beard. Christmas cards are still quite rare, but are becoming more and more popular. Some hardcore Christmas fans in China even go so far as to make wok-steamed cakes and puddings in the style of the traditional mincemeat concoctions beloved in the West.
Lao Li, from Xi’an, celebrates Christmas for his young son. “My wife and I never bothered too much with Christmas until our little boy was born.” he says. “As he grew older, he started to pester us to get a Christmas tree, and ask us if Sheng dan lao ren was coming! How could we refuse?”
So does the celebration of Christmas in China amount to a mere business opportunity, and a copy of a Western festival, or is it more heartfelt? Guangdong-born David, age 32, pointed out that Christmas in the West is now more of a commercial occasion than anything else. “So what if China profits from Christmas? It’s kind of lost its meaning in the West now anyway. In this day and age, when the whole world is becoming more international, I think it’s great that we can share festivals. Chinese New Year is really popular overseas, so why shouldn’t we celebrate Christmas too?”
Yuletide for expats in China often consists of a turkey dinner down at the local sports bar, but why not break with tradition this year and celebrate at a Chinese friend’s house? Experiencing Christmas Chinese style is something that ought to be done at least once!
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