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Christmas in China: How It's Celebrated

Written by Kimi HuangUpdated Oct. 30, 2023

Christmas has been steadily gaining popularity in Chinese mainland in recent years, though it is not a public holiday here. Outside China's Christian community, its "celebrations" are not related to religion at all, but this does not stop it becoming a major annual event in major cities of China

Christmas is regarded as a "Valentine's Day" by many young Chinese people. To stimulate consumption, various promotional activities are held in the shops and shopping malls. Restaurants offer Christmas dinners on Christmas Eve. And, interestingly, sending apples as gifts to friends on Christmas Eve is one of the traditions of a Chinese Christmas.

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How Do Most People in China Celebrate Christmas?

Though Christmas has been a big commercial success and a newly adopted festive tradition, most people in China do not celebrate as people do in the West. Like many foreign customs that China has absorbed and adapted over the centuries, Christmas also has developed its unique Chinese flair in China.

Christmas in China is a Valentine's Day for the Young

Young people celebrate ChristmasYoung people celebrate Christmas

This is a major feature of Chinese Christmases. In Chinese mainland, Christmas is becoming another form of Valentine's Day, with gifts, confessions, togetherness, sleepless nights... There is a festive atmosphere. Many younger Chinese see it as a romantic holiday for couples to exchange gifts and date. Ice skating and amusement parks are popular spots during the festival.

Christmas is the time when men prepare heart-warming winter gifts to win over their partners, while girls will dress themselves up with a range of new items.

Christmas Has Huge Commercial Value

Promotion during ChritmasPromotions during Chritmas

For most Chinese without a Christian outlook, this festival is a shopping stunt to stimulate their consumer interest. Merchants follow this trend, many department stores and shopping malls are decorated with Christmas trees, twinkling lights, and festive decorations, and large promotional activities are held.

Santa Claus is a symbol of giving and Christmas cheer in the West, but he is more of an "atmosphere lifter" in China. As you wander around the stores and streets, you'll often see a big, red-suited Father Christmas jamming out on a saxophone. In the traditional culture of China, weddings, funerals, and all festivals are usually accompanied by musical instruments — aiming to enhance the atmosphere.

An Apple is a Meaningful Gift on Christmas Eve

It's a tradition to eat an apple on Chritmas EveIt's a tradition to eat an apple on Chritmas Eve

An unusual apple-giving tradition has evolved in China. Ping in the word 'apple' (苹果 píngguǒ /ping-gwor/) sounds like the word 'peace' in Mandarin, which is used in the Chinese for Christmas Eve and the carol "Silent Night" (平安夜 Píng'ān Yè 'Peaceful Evening'), so people give and eat apples, particularly on Christmas Eve. Apples are sold with messages printed on the skin (in Chinese): 'love', love hearts, and 'peace' are popular messages.

Parents Introduce Western Festivals and Customs to Their Kids

Parents introduce Christmas Customs to Their KidsParents introduce Christmas Customs to Their Kids

Especially in the big cities, parents may make a Christmas card with their kids, as well as introduce the culture of Christmas decorations, such as Christmas trees, Christmas hats, and Christmas stockings. The whole family may have dinner together at home or outside in a Christmas-inspired restaurant on Christmas Eve.

In the evening of Christmas Eve, parents may tell stories about Santa and the happiness of the day with their kids. A Christmas stocking may be hung on the bedside to receive gifts from Santa.

How Chinese Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Christmas celebration with familyChristmas celebration with family

China's Christians (only 1% of the population officially) generally celebrate Christmas religiously, sometimes more so than in the West.

While most Chinese people don't realize that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ or attach any religious significance to the (foreign) festivities, many of China's Christians celebrate Christmas as the top event of the year, outranking even Chinese New Year, preparing songs and activities weeks before.

Christians in China celebrate by going to special church services, which are typically packed to capacity. On Christmas Eve, there are choral performances, and the congregation puts on dance and drama performances. Christmas Eve is called 'Peaceful Evening' (Ping'an Ye 平安夜 from the translation of the carol "Silent Night").

Carol singing in the streets is rarely seen, though it's popular in Christians' houses, where the karaoke machine, ever-popular in China, may be employed.

What Foreigners in China Do at Christmas?

Decorate the Christmas treeDecorate the Christmas tree

Expats (from countries and cultures that celebrate Christmas) decorate their homes and try to generate an atmosphere as much like at home as possible. Many feel particularly homesick at this time of year.

Purchasing the trappings of Christmas is becoming increasingly possible in China, especially in the big cities where big malls and Christmas markets sell wrapping paper, cards, etc., and there are import stores for Christmas ingredients. Online shopping is increasingly the cheapest way to get e.g. a Christmas tree and decorations or even a turkey delivered to your door.

Expats hold Christmas parties in their homes and often in their schools if they are teachers. A Christmas dinner with family, or at least friends if the family are far away, is seen as very important by most.

Christmas is a Public Holiday in Hong Kong

Christmas in HongkongChristmas in Hongkong

In Hong Kong, Christmas Day (December 25) and Boxing Day (December 26) are both official public holidays. Banks are closed these days. Boxing Day is a British tradition. It is a day for shopping for after-holiday sales and for employers to give gifts to employees.

Hong Kong is one of the best places to go for a festive Christmas atmosphere, with its two-day public holiday. Hong Kong is known for fantastic Christmas displays, fine food, and Christmas shopping. For more, see Christmas in Hong Kong.

The Top Three Chinese Christmas Songs

Apart from (classic) English carols and pop songs, the Chinese songs you are most likely to hear playing are the Chinese versions (to the same tunes) of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", "Silent Night", and "Jingle Bells".

Recommended Destinations for a Christmas Holiday

The end of December is either busy or a winding down period of work for most people in Chinese mainland before their big winter holidays at Chinese New Year. So, domestic transportation and room rates are lower since it is a tourist low season. Christmas is a good time for traveling in China.

China spreads over a vast territory, with large climate variations from north to south and east to west. You can gain different experiences while traveling in different parts over Christmas, such as Harbin's icy wonders and exotic atmosphere, holy Tibet, and warm Yunnan with spring-like scenery.

Harbin — a Fantastic White Christmas

China Snow TownChina Snow Town

Harbin is always a top choice for a romantic and beautiful Christmas. It is called "the Oriental Moscow" and is a wonderful blend of North China culture and European flavors. Plus, the Ice Festival begins unofficially at Christmas with amazing ice and snow sculptures.

Top Things to Do

  • Enter the fabulous Ice and Snow World to see numerous ice sculptures of huge proportions with Christmas decorations, dazzling colors, and light effects.
  • Snow brightens up the Christmas vibe. See a dreamy snowy village and landscape and enjoy the fun of playing in the snow in China Snow Town.
  • Ski in Yabuli Ski Resort — the primary training venue for China's national teams.

Enjoy a dynamic Christmas and Chinese New Year Holiday in Harbin

Tibet — Christmas on the Roof of the World

The Mount EverestThe Mount Everest

If Tibet is on your must-do list before you leave China, Christmas break and the new year is actually the best time for fewer crowds and unbeatable prices (hotels are up to 300 CNY less than in other seasons). Celebrating Christmas on the Roof of the World will bring you an unforgettable experience.

Top Things to Do

  • Travel to Everest Base camp and witness the starry sky.
  • Explore the less-touristy corners of Barkhor Street.
  • Discover an architectural miracle — the Potala Palace.
  • Hike to see a hidden small lake surrounded by mountains with a huge glacier.

Celebrate your Chritmas at the roof of the world.

Yunnan — a Warm/Outdoor Christmas

the Nu RiverThe Nu River

Yunnan is a minority area. Have you imagined having a memorable Christmas in a warm exotic place? The warm sub-tropical sunshine, clear dry-season skies, and moderate climate mean this region can be even more comfortable in "winter".

Top Things to Do

  • Tiger Leaping Gorge hiking: Discover one of the most magnificent gorges in China.
  • Go to Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang to enjoy the landscapes, history, and minority cultures of Yunnan.
  • Travel to much-less-traveled places — the Nu River and Tengchong. There you can enjoy China's best volcanic hot spring. See "the last untamed river in China", and feel the charm of ethnic minorities in Northwest Yunnan.

Enjoy your Christmas with the warm sub-tropical sunshine and clear dry-season skies in Yunnan.

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