The History of Christmas in China

Article by Stephen Robinson

Christmas has often been compared to Spring Festival in terms of its cultural importance within Western Culture, and there is some merit to the comparison. Both are winter-based holidays that are celebrated annually. Both are times of togetherness, family, and tradition. You could even draw parallels with Red Envelopes and giving gifts. However, it’s easy to forget that, while the practice is small, some local Chinese people like to celebrate this holiday as well, though often in a different way than you might expect. So this year, we thought we’d take a look at the history of this ubiquitous Western holiday, and how it got to the Middle Kingdom

The Early Years
There is not many records for when Christmas was first introduced into China. While the first Christmas celebration on record was in 336CE, the first recorded instances of Christians in China date from the 7th century CE, as recorded by the Nestorian Steele, though there are no (as far as I could find) references to Christmas celebrations.
Protestant missionaries came in the thousands from 1840-1949, with as many as 50,000 entering the country during that time, setting up schools and bringing many of the traditions along with them, including Christmas celebrations. Relationships between these Christian missionaries and the Qing government were often strained, leading to restrictions and outright bans at some times. The Taiping Rebellion, led by the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Hong Xiuquan, led to further issues, despite Hong being declared a heretic.
While some Christmas celebrations could be found through this period, the practices were not widespread except in certain areas of some of the coastal cities.
Christmas in Pre-Reform China
Following the establishment of the PRC in 1949, Christmas was considered to be, like many things, a symbol of Western Imperialism and celebrations were generally discouraged or outright banned, though the occasional celebration was held for visitors from the Soviet Bloc during the 1950s. In general, though the holiday, like much of Western Culture, was generally frowned upon.
Following the economic reforms in 1978, slowly increasing exchange led to a resurgence of interest in Christmas, especially during the 1990s. People became more familiar with the holiday, though it was often separated from its religious origins, focusing more on the materialistic and celebratory aspects of the holiday. Decorations started to appear in larger cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, and would eventually arrive in much smaller cities across the country. The pervasiveness of foreign chains like Pizza Hut and Starbucks would further add to the celebratory time. It soon became common to see images of Santa at almost every shopping plaza, with Christmas trees and fake Christmas presents abounding, though it’s rare to see someone’s home similarly decorated.
The Christmas Pushback
Not everyone was happy about the growing popularity of this foreign holiday, and in 2006, a general petition from students at some of China’s top universities called on Chinese people to boycott Christmas festivities and instead focus on traditional Chinese cultural holidays instead. This outcry was taken up and encouraged by local officials in some areas, but was never promoted by the central government. Each year since then, stories pop up, usually in universities in different areas of the country, of this school or some local official trying to put a stop to Christmas celebrations. In Xi’an in 2014, the Modern College of Northwest University banned students from celebrating Christmas, forcing students instead to watch a 3-hour patriotic film on Christmas Eve to prevent anyone from holding parties or going out. Despite this backlash, the holiday is still celebrated by many across China.
Christmas with Chinese
As with many things, Christmas is celebrated in different way in different parts of China. One thing that is relatively ubiquitous is that the primary celebrations are held on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day, similar to the way that the large celebrations of Spring Festival are held on the night before the first day of the Chinese New Year. On these evenings, people will often go out to a big dinner, with elaborate shows being held at some of the larger hotels and venues across the city. The churches of the official sanctioned denominations of Chinese Christianity will also hold services on these evenings.
The downtown area of Xi’an usually fills with people who go out on the streets, walking around and enjoying snacks and other offerings from vendors, often while wearing light up head bands and other knickknacks. Subway entrances inside the city wall will also shut down on this evening, and buses will reroute to avoid the congested area, so plan your trips that evening accordingly.
Around this time, you might also receive the gift of one, or several, apples, often in decorative boxes, sometimes painted or otherwise decorated. This seemingly odd gift is due to a homonym with the Chinese for Christmas Eve平安夜 Píng’ān Yè, which is similar to the pronunciation for apple. These and other gifts might appear from coworkers and students, though it’s not necessarily expected for you to reciprocate.
While Christmas is not an official holiday in China, and thus no time off for the holiday, employers will often make accommodations for foreign employees, either switching around schedules or granting time off. In 2021, Christmas falls on a Saturday, so many will have the day off already, though you shouldn’t expect a make-up day as with other holidays.

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