I’ve spent Christmas in China three times: 2002 in Zhaoqing, Guangdong and 2006 and 2007 in Langfang, Hebei. That doesn’t make me an expert on the topic by any means, but as the festive season arrives, I feel moved to share some of the insights I’ve picked up about Christmas in China.
Christmas Is Big In China
Even though Christmas is not a traditional Chinese festival, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for it. Anyone expecting it to be a non-event will be surprised. Shopping centres will be decked out with Christmas trees and decorations, there’ll be Christmas music in taxis and there’ll be fireworks on Christmas Eve.
The enthusiasm seems to be growing each year, especially amongst the younger generation. In some respects, the Chinese don’t really understand Christmas, especially the religious aspect, but that’s fine – I don’t understand everything about Spring Festival either!
Christmas Equals Christmas Eve
The biggest difference about spending Christmas in China is that Christmas Day is a non-event – it’s all about Christmas Eve. People fill the streets on Christmas Eve, meet with friends, have a Christmas meal, set off fireworks, etc. In the morning, it’s back to work.
This is not a new phenomenon. When my parents visited Hong Kong in 1981, they couldn’t move because there were so many people on the streets on Christmas Eve. When they came down for breakfast on Christmas Day, the staff asked “Did you have a nice Christmas”. Christmas was over.
Of course, Christmas Day is not a public holiday in China, which may go some way to explain this.
Christmas Not A Public Holiday In China
Although it’s not a public holiday in China, foreign teachers (ie Westerner’s teaching English in China) often get Christmas Day off. However, it’s by no means guaranteed, as the school will almost certainly be open with students and Chinese staff in attendance.
For my first Christmas in China in 2002, the foreign teachers were required to work. The foreign teachers were pretty unhappy about this and at the last moment, the school gave us the day off. However, the rest of the school ran as normal, with students having normal lessons with their Chinese teachers.
In 2006 and 2007, Christmas Day was written into the teacher’s contracts as a holiday. However, even in a college where all the teachers were foreigners, the students still didn’t get the day off – they had to sit in class and have ‘self study’. In 2007, I actually volunteered to work on Christmas Day to catch up some classes – my students were sitting there anyway.
Christmas In TEFL Schools
If you’re teaching English in China, you can expect your students to be enthusiastic about Christmas. As well as being a good topic for classes, there’ll almost certainly be a Christmas Concert. At least, there’s been a concert for all three of my Chinese Christmases.
The content of the concerts are mixed: traditional Chinese songs, dancing, Christmas Carols, Kung Fu demonstrations, even Karaoke.
One thing you can be certain of is that the foreign teachers will have to get up and sing. The performance is normally adhoc and truly awful compared to the performances of the students, who have spent hours practising their acts, but the students still applaud enthusiastically. You get marks for the effort!
Two Santa’s Are Better Than One
One of the things that the Chinese don’t quite get is that there’s only one Santa Claus. It’s fine to have a Santa in two different shopping centres, but not fine to have two Santa’s together. In China, they take the approach of the more, the merrier! Why limit yourself to one Santa when you can have two.
The photo above was taken in Zhaoqing at Christmas 2002 and as you can see there are two Santas! I’m one of them, though I’m not sure which one is me anymore. Here’s the close up.
Buying Christmas Cards In China
I recently read an article, titled Christmas wraps up another year of surprises, by Patrick Whiteley, an expat living in China. Although it’s more about the changing perceptions of China, one thing he said gave me a smile:
I know there are a few weeks before we all tear into another year, but when I start buying Christmas presents, and posting them back home (as we all must do now)
In 2002, I was living in Zhaoqing, a small city in Guangdong province. There were plenty of Christmas decorations for sale, but it was impossible to find a Christmas card. Although I looked long and hard, in the end I decided it was a good excuse not to send Christmas cards! Unfortunately these days it’s much easier to buy Christmas cards in China.
Almost As Good As Christmas At Home
Although nothing can replace Christmas at home with the family, those expecting Christmas in China to be a non-event will likely be surprised. I know I was! All of my Christmases in China have been great, partly because of the shared experience with other expats, partly because of the enthusiasm of my students and partly because Christmas in China can be a little surreal at times.
I’ll leave it there for now. If you’ve spent Christmas in China, please share your experiences in the comments. Have a Happy Christmas wherever you are!