As a western religious holiday, Christmas wasn’t celebrated in as mainstream in China until recently. Now it has been integrated into all major cities in mainland China as a commercially focused holiday by malls to create a winter atmosphere. It is now the biggest in-store spending day of the year. Although China is the country with the largest growing population of Christians, they only make up 1% of the population, so most people in China have found other meanings to Christmas.
As a foreigner living in China I never really feel like I miss Christmas. All the malls and restaurants are decorated with huge Christmas trees, lights are spread everywhere, decorations spill into the streets, some restaurants will even give you complimentary Christmas gifts, and you even get to meet Santa! The whole of December turns into one huge Christmas event, almost every day there will be something to do.
In Chinese Merry Christmas is known as “Sheng4 dan4 Kuai4 le4” (圣诞快乐) and many foreign songs have been translated into Chinese and can be heard in the shopping malls. Santa or “sheng4 dan4 lao3 ren2” (圣诞老人) in Chinese meaning old Christmas man, takes center stage as the main figure for celebrating Christmas in China.
Since, unfortunately, Christmas is not a national holiday, no one has the day off making it harder to celebrate. Because of this Christmas is seen and celebrated like other foreign holidays (Valentines/Saint Patrick’s/Thanksgiving) as an occasion to meet up and go out with friends and family for dinner.
Even though as the world’s capital maker of Christmas decorations they are dirt cheap in China and can be found everywhere. Few actually celebrate Christmas the western way by decorating their house and celebrating with family. The few that have a Christmas tree may decorate it not only with western style ornaments but with beautiful Chinese paper lanterns, paper chains, and paper flowers, this type of decorated tree is often named “tree of lights”. A fusion of western and eastern Christmas style.
What might come as a surprise to foreigners is the common gift given on Christmas Eve in China, an apple (and I don’t mean the iPhone). Now, these aren’t just ordinary apples, they are wrapped in elaborate wrappings like a present. But the best part is when you open the packaging, it has an intricate design that has been grown into the apple wishing you a Merry Christmas or good health. For me it makes a change from the decadent sweet filled Christmas at home adding a healthy aspect to an otherwise stuffing holiday.
You might be questioning, why an apple? In China, items can have special meanings because of their relation to other unique words due to the way they sound phonetically. In Chinese Christmas Eve is said as “Ping2’an1 Ye4” (平安夜) meaning peaceful night, the word for apple “Ping2 guo3” (苹果) sounds similar, and so you will give apples to signify peace.
So why not add some Chinese characteristics to your Christmas and make some paper lanterns to add to your tree, and gift others peace by offering apples!