While Christmas – and Christianity – have long been banned in China, a commercialised version of Christmas has grown in popularity over recent years. While you’ll still see classic Christmas decorations like Christmas trees and lights, the holiday has developed its own unique Chinese flair. From a sax-playing Santa to gifting apples on Christmas Eve, here are 6 fascinating facts about Christmas in China.
1. Christmas in China is more like Valentine’s Day
Christmas in Mainland China is not a public holiday and is not related to religion at all. It’s more of a novelty day like Valentine’s Day, rather than a religious celebration. But you’ll still see the malls and streets of the big cities filled with Christmas decorations, fir trees, Santa Claus and carols. A shopping mall in Xi’an once built a huge 65-square-metre gingerbread house, while a 9-metre Christmas tree (Asia’s tallest) was made of LEGOS!
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Despite the incredible decorations, Christmas is more of a lighthearted day for going out with friends, rather than gathering with family. Instead of going to church, locals like to go shopping or ice skating, or head to karaoke bars and cinemas.
Young couples can also see it as a romantic day for gift giving and expressing their love for each other. The department stores take advantage of this and put on annual events and big sales, and the locals like to get out into the festive atmosphere and snag some bargains.
If you’re in Hong Kong or Macau, you’ll get a two-day public holiday over Christmas and a more traditional Christmas celebration, as these regions are more influenced by their British and Portuguese history.
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2. It’s tradition to eat an apple on Christmas Eve
This is not just any apple – it’s a Peace Apple. One of the most common Chinese Christmas traditions among young people is to send cellophane-wrapped apples as gifts to their friends. The apples are also often sold with printed messages like ‘love’, ‘peace’ and ‘Merry Christmas’.
This tradition evolved because ‘Christmas Eve’ translates into Mandarin as “ping’an ye”, which means ‘peaceful night’. The Mandarin Chinese word for apple is pronounced as ‘ping guo’, which sounds similar to peace. The Chinese love their homophones, and therefore the locals say that eating an apple will bless you with a safe and peaceful year ahead.
3. Santa has sisters – not elves – and lives in China’s North Pole
While we typically hear stories of Santa and his helper elves, in China it’s a bit different. When you see people dressed as Santa in malls, you’ll see him accompanied by costumed women who are known as Santa’s ‘sisters’.
Santa is known as ‘Sheng dan Lao ren’ in Mandarin, which translates as ‘Christmas Old Man’, and he is seen as a non-religious figure who lives in a fairytale Arctic Christmas Village in China’s North Pole.
The Christmas theme park is set in the beautiful countryside outside Mohe, the northernmost city in China. It’s even modelled after Santa’s official home village in Rovaniemi in Finland, complete with Santa Claus’s house and post office. It’s a stunning place to visit with magical snowy scenery and the chance to see the Northern Lights… definitely one for Christmas fans.
4. The Chinese Santa plays the saxophone
The Chinese Santa Claus is no ordinary jolly man – he plays the saxophone! As you wander around the stores and streets, you’ll often see the big, red-suited Father Christmas jamming out on a saxophone, or even a trumpet or French horn. This Chinese Christmas tradition is totally unique to the country and no one really knows why.
One theory is that the Chinese Santa is seen as a romantic figure, and the sax is quite a charming instrument! It’s also common to see all kinds of depictions of Santa Claus, such as Santa wearing traditional Chinese clothes… So why not make Saint Nick a musician too!
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5. China is home to the ‘Christmas capital of the world’
The city of Yiwu in Zhejiang province is famed as the ’Christmas capital of the world’. Why? The city is home to over 600 factories which specialise in making the majority of the lights and decorations that hang in shops, homes and streets all over the world. Your Christmas decorations probably came from Yiwu!
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6. There is a battle over Christmas in China
While Christmas celebrations are increasing in popularity, not everyone in China is happy about it. Nationalists say the holiday is a tool of foreign imperialism and is a threat to China’s own traditions. They want Chinese people to stop celebrating westernised holidays and support their own culture. But most Chinese people just see the day as an excuse to have fun with friends and don’t focus on the traditional Christian message of Christmas Day.
However, there are around 68 million Christians (5% of the Chinese population) living in China, who do face religious restrictions and aren’t free to pray or sing religious carols in public. For now, the commercialised version of Christmas remains in China.
Have you ever spent Christmas in China? Let us know in the comments below!