Being away from home for the holidays can be difficult, especially in a country who’s Christmas traditions have only been growing for the past 40 years. In fact, Christmas and Boxing Day (Dec. 26th) are only recognized as national holidays in Hong Kong, and in many rural areas of China the holiday is still a giant mystery. Despite the fact, there are still several ways to celebrate Christmas in China for every type of person.
For the Shopper
Christmas Eve is now the biggest shopping day of the year in China (excluding Singles’ Day), with the entire month of December being a popular time to shop both for expats and Chinese. Department stores will often decorate and give discounts, and in some cafes you can hear Christmas music starting in December. An “Old Christmas Man” (圣诞老人) – better known to Westerners as “Santa Clause” – can be found in some malls, and often is featured playing the saxophone.
The best shopping for Christmas in China, however, is in the Christmas Markets or night markets that pop up in larger cities in China. In Beijing, the most popular markets include: Beijing Lai Tai Flower Trade Center 莱太花卉 for real Christmas trees; Tianyi Small Goods Wholesale Market 天意小商品批发市场 for small commodities and goods, decorations, trees; Tianyi Market 天意市场 for knick-knacks; and various Christmas bazaars around the city. In Shanghai the number of Christmas Markets grows every year, ranging from German to French to Medieval-themed markets. These are especially popular as you can find real and fake Christmas trees, decorations, hand-crafted gifts, and festive booze.
For the Adventurer
Besides Christmas Markets and shopping, China offers several other activities to do during the holiday season that vary city-to-city. In Beijing and Shanghai, you can find ice-skating at China’s number one ranked Peking University or one of several of Shanghai’s indoor skating arenas. You can also find a production of the Nutcracker or visit the Ice and Snow Festival inside the Nest in Beijing from mid December to mid February.
Hong Kong hosts the popular Winterfest in the south, while Harbin hosts the world-famous Harbin Ice Festival in the Northeast region of China. You can celebrate Christmas in China with some stranger traditions in cities like Xi’an or Guangzhou, where people walk to the Bell tower night market and back or dress as Santas while riding around on Harley Davidson motorcycles and giving presents to elderly homes.
For the Chinese Experience
While celebrating Christmas in China has received some resistance in the past few years, popularity for the holiday has grown especially among the youth. It is fairly common now for Chinese people to get together with their friends on Christmas Eve, either to have dinner, rock a KTV stage, watch a movie, or exchange Christmas cards or small gifts. Another increasingly popular tradition is giving friends an apple on the 24th as the Chinese word for apple, ‘Píng Guǒ’, sounds similar to the word for Christmas Eve, ‘Píng Ān Yè’ (meaning silent night).
For a food fusion of Eastern and Western traditions, you can try an Eight Treasures Duck (八宝鸭) which is the Chinese version of stuffed turkey. In this dish you will find a whole duck stuffed with diced chicken, smoked ham, shrimp, fresh chestnuts, bamboo shoots, dried scallops, and mushrooms, stir-fried and served with slightly undercooked rice, soy sauce, ginger, spring onions, white sugar, and rice wine. Yum!
For the Religious or Western Tradition
In China only about 5% of the population is Christian, but if there is a church in your city be sure not to miss the midnight mass. Many churches will also have caroling or a drama performance of Silent Night. One of the biggest Christmas events in China is the Christmas Eve Performance Night in Guilin. Here, local Christians will perform three hours of songs, dances, and skits. Be sure to arrive at the church on Zhongshan Middle Road well before 7pm if you want a seat.
Western-style dinners on Christmas day are best at hotel restaurants or Western restaurants. Shangri-La and Sheraton are among the two most trusted places to find a typical Christmas dinner, but you can trust almost any Western chain restaurant.