Only a small percentage of people in the People's Republic of China are Christians, and there are laws regulating the celebration of religious holidays. Christmas is a bit more popular in Hong Kong (especially with the opening of a Disney resort) and Taiwan, of course, is more Westernized that than the PRC. Even when Christmas is celebrated, though, the experience and traditions may be quite different from those in the United States.
Christmas in The People's Republic of China
In Chinese Happy/Merry Christmas is 'Sheng Dan Kuai Le in Mandarin and 'Seng Dan Fai Lok in Cantonese. Santa is known as 'Sheng dan Lao ren," which translates literally to Old Christmas Man. With only about 1% of people in the People's Republic being Christian, the holiday is rarely celebrated outside of large cities. Few people have Christmas trees, though some do decorate with paper chains and lanterns.
Things are a bit different, however, in the large cities such as Beijing. There, where many people have come to live from Europe and the United States, Christmas has gained some foothold. In fact, it has become a widely commercialized holiday in main cities, with all the trappings of a national holiday. By embracing Christmas in its own way, the Chinese government has successfully separated the holiday from its religious roots. According to an article in The Atlantic:
As huge numbers of urban Chinese celebrate a commercialized and religiously sterilized version of Christmas, the country's 68 million Christians (about 5 percent of the population) have a tougher time. Religious practice is tightly regulated by the government, with acts such as caroling variously forbidden or allowed....
When the government began allowing the more commercialized version of Christmas to prosper starting in the 1990s, it had the effect, deliberate or not, of overshadowing the Western-style version, reducing the holiday's religious connotations. In a way, the more popular Christmas gets in China, the less Christian it becomes.
Christmas in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan
Hong Kong and Macau have experienced much more European influence that the PRC, and as a result, they celebrate Christmas in a much more European fashion. Christmas is a two-day holiday in both those locations, with banks closed and special sales on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas).
Hong Kong, in particular, has embraced Christmas wholeheartedly. It was named by CNN as one of the top ten places to spend Christmas because of its amazing displays, food, and shopping. Hong Kong is also the home of a Disney theme park where Christmas is celebrated with all its American glitter and ceremony.
While Taiwan does have more Western influence than the PRC, there are fewer Christians there than in Hong Kong. While there are Christmas celebrations, they tend to be low key.
Unique Chinese Christmas Celebrations
While Christmas may not be the same big holiday in China that it is in the United States, it does include some unique and special traditions.
- The Chinese word for apple sounds very much like the word for "peace." As a result, a lovely tradition has developed of exchanging apples wrapped in colored paper. The apples are eaten on Christmas Eve because in Chinese the word for "Christmas Eve" means peaceful or quiet evening (from the traditional carol Silent Night).
- Some people go Carol singing, although not many people understand them or know about the Christmas Story. Jingle Bells is a popular Carol in China!
- People who are Christians in China go to special services. Going to Midnight Mass services has become very popular. Attendance at Christmas Eve mass has also become more popular in recent years. (A similar trend can be found in Japan, where store owners have discovered the commercial potential of celebrating the Yuletide season.
- As in western culture, Christmas day involves a family feast. But instead of the Western traditional turkey or ham, Chinese families are more likely to eat the foods associated with Chinese New Years. These might include roast barbecued pork, chicken, and soup with wood ears.
- Children hang up muslin stockings in the hope that Dun Che Lao Ren, the Chinese version of Santa Claus, will visit and leave gifts.
- Ta Chiu, a Taoist festival, takes place on December 27th in Hong Kong. One of the more interesting traditions of this festival comes near the end when the priests read the names of everyone who lives in the area. When the priest has finished reading the list, the names are attached to a paper horse and burned, the hope being that they will rise to heaven.