Christmas, long banned in China along with Christianity itself, is a fascinating Chinese contradiction: a booming business and ultra-popular holiday in the world's leading Communist and officially non-religious state. The popularity of Christmas began to grow in the early-1990s alongside China’s economic development and consumption culture, without any of the festival's intrinsic Christian values
The Christmas tradition is quite young here, but just like so many foreign customs that China has for centuries absorbed and made its own, the holiday has already developed its own Chinese characteristics.
1.Christmas is treated more like a Saint Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day
Contrary to the Western tradition, where Christmas is time to spend some quality time with your family, in China it is another opportunity to hang out with friends at a movie theater, the shopping mall or KTV! Young Couples often treat it as a romantic day and instead of church, they head ice-skating or to amusement parks.
2. Jesus plays second fiddle to Santa and his sisters, who additionally has an official residence in China’s North Pole (Oh, and he plays saxophone too!)
Christmas Old Man – in Chinese shèng dàn lǎo rén 圣诞老人 – is a non-religious ambassador of Christmas in China and as every true diplomat with expat package, is provided with ample accommodations. It is located in the arctic village – Mohe, Heilongjiang– and is modelled after his original home village in Rovaniemi, Finland.
And if you were wondering about his living conditions –picture a two-floor, heated house with Santa’s bedroom and office.
Instead of Elves, Christmas old Man is escorted by costumed ladies, commonly known as his ‘sisters’. Finally, for obscure reasons – Santa is often portrayed with a saxophone (we all understand how many expats discover new talents in China, after all!)
3. There is a "war on Christmas" in China
Despite its increasing popularity in cities across China, Christmas has been drawing criticism from some quarters from nationalistic critics. They have accused the West of using the holiday as a tool of foreign imperialism. Others don’t like the growing presence of Christmas because it undermines China’s own traditions.
As a result of these clashing opinions, we can see – on the one hand – an innovative and creative approach to celebrating Christmas. For example, a shopping mall in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, constructed a giant 65 square meter gingerbread house, and another random example being a display of Asia’s tallest (9 meters!) Christmas tree made of LEGOS.
At the same time, there have been some undesirable situations like the one with a university in Xi’an where banners were put up reading, ‘Resist the expansion of Western culture’ and ‘Strive to be outstanding sons and daughters of China, oppose kitsch Western holidays’. They also kept students on campus for a mandatory three-hour screening of films promoting traditional Chinese culture.
4. Chinese Christians face restrictions against a Western-style holiday
While the majority of Chinese citizens are satisfied with the commercial side of Christmas, the remaining 5 % (or 68 million) of Christians face some genuine obstacles. Chinese Christians still face some restrictions against a Western-style holiday, not being free to pray or sing religious Christmas carols in public. Yet, it gets better with time. The informal "house churches" are officially forbidden but typically tolerated.
5. The Chinese city of Yiwu in Zhejiang province has been called the ’Christmas capital of the world’ because the city is home to over 600 factories specializing in making or selling the majority of the worlds decorations and lights hung in our homes, shops and offices
6. The most common gift is cellophane-wrapped 'Christmas apple'.
Two explanations - the word "apple" apparently sounds like "Christmas eve" in Mandarin. 平安夜 - píng ān yè ( 平 is the character for ‘ apple’ ). 平安 also means ‘peace’ so the apples symbolize peace during Christmas time.
7. A 19th century Chinese Christian leader claimed to be Jesus's brother, then started a civil war
Once upon a time there was a man named Hong Xiuquan, who was born in 1814. As missionaries were spreading Christianity in China, Hong had visions that led him to believe that he was the second son of God, who had commanded him to rid China of sacrilegious practices. Hong formed a movement called the ‘Heavenly Kingdom’, which rose up and came to control vast swathes of southern China. The civil war of 1850 to 1864, also known as the Taiping Rebellion, ultimately killed perhaps 20 million people, or approximately as many people as World War One. This could explain why the attitude of the Chinese government toward Christmas, in the land of the Ever-Rising Dragon, contains quite a big dose of skepticism. Where the economy wants to embrace another excuse for consumerism, this optimism is tempered with a great deal of caution. Particularly when it comes to the Chinese people’s adoption of the culture that forms the ethno-religious underpinning of this categorically Christian ‘Holy Day’.