Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

You could be right thinking Christmas is not something that is celebrated in China. After all, the world biggest communist country should in theory have the world largest atheist population, right? And culturally, shouldn’t the Chinese be drawn to their Buddhist and Taoist inheritance? First of all, it’s a difference between celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and celebrate Christmas. And second, Christmas is just a holiday too good not to celebrate. All those lights and fun music! So if you find yourself in China at this time of year you’ll see (and hear) that not only do they love Christmas, they have already made their own twist to it.

Snow White is ready for a Chinese Christmas
Snow White is ready for a Chinese Christmas

Like many Western festivals imported to China over the last decades, Christmas is right there on the same level as Valentine’s Day, Easter, St Patrick’s Day and Halloween. First initiated by eager merchants and foreign restaurant and bar owners who saw sales soar during the holidays, now taken for granted and used for what’s worth by whoever can.

Christmas isn’t a national holiday, and it’s the Chinese New Year celebration that’s all about family and traditions. This time is solely about shopping, having fun with friends and decorations. Lots of decorations! Not so much in their homes yet, but every shopping district and hotel with the tiniest international link will go heavy on the plastic pine and ornaments. And probably a mechanical Santa playing the saxophone or a few Disney figures for good measure. Most of the decorations and fake Christmas trees are made in China anyway, and with their love for loud music and colored lights, it sure does get festive!

In all the lights and ho ho hos it’s easy to forget that there are quite a few that celebrate the original meaning of Christmas. The number of Christians in China you find on internet vary between 20 million to over a 100, and who knows. It’s the fastest growing faith in China and according to the Chinese government’s official numbers there are “more than 4,600 Catholic and over 12,000 Protestant churches, as well as over 30,000 other types of Christian places of worship.” And something tells me that the 30,000 other types doesn’t include the non-registered, illegal house churches, operated by small communities, that want to worship outside the watchful eye of the communist party. I can’t help but wonder what these people  feel about all the noise and glitter that surrounds them outside their church.

So what if you traveled to China and actually wanted to get some good, old Christmas feeling, what can you do?

Find a Christian church and attend mass or a service. Sing along to traditional psalms and carols translated into Chinese. Ask at the hotel, your guide or even your local embassy might know where to find the nearest place. Even if you can’t understand what they are saying, it can still be an exceptional experience.

Eat. All the big five-star hotels and most international restaurants in the big cities will serve Christmas brunch, Champagne lunches, Christmas buffets and special extravagant, many course dinners. Whatever you crave from home, you will find it here. If you are far from these kind of establishments, at least the Chinese are good at cooking duck and pork. Maybe it’s time to make new traditions?

But where's Rudolf?
But where’s Rudolf?

Go shopping. Every shopping mall will be decorated with Christmas trees, a few Santas will probably be there too, together with the elves. Interestingly, the elves in China happens to be very pretty, long-legged females dressed in very short, red dresses. If that doesn’t get you in the mood, the canned music will. Unless it drives you crazy first.

Eat an apple. Many Chinese words have the same sound, but with different meanings. Apple and peace are both pronounced “ping”, and since Christmas Eve is called the Peaceful Night, it’s natural to present special Christmas apples as gifts. They are not only wrapped in colorful paper, the apple skin will often have Chinese characters for love and happiness and images of Santa and Merry X-mas on them.

Travel. The further you travel from the big cities, the less Christmas you get. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, after all. Enjoy the scenery, find time and peace to think about what this holiday means to you and explore a different culture.

Two penguins dressed as Santa walk into a bar...
Two penguins dressed as Santa walk into a bar…

If you can’t go to China for Christmas, at least you can eat an apple! And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can go for Chinese food. My best idea, put a trip to China high on your wishing list! Just a few suggestions! Have a wonderful holiday season!


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Christine Surlien

Christine has studied Chinese culture and language extensively. She has spent two years at The People’s University of China in Beijing, done five years of Chinese studies at the University of Oslo, and has her masters degree from Hong Kong University. She has been associated with KinaReiser, Norway’s leading agency for travel to the The Far East, for a decade. She was also employed at the administration of the Norwegian Embassy to China for two years, before relocating to Washington DC with her diplomat husband and their two children.

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